Is the race for county boys basketball supremacy over before it has even started?
Most rival coaches agree that defending 4A champion Annapolis ranks high above the rest of the field, despite the loss of guards Gene Slocum, Aderio Jones and Jeff Brown, forward Adrian Quille and standout center Ted Cottrell.
"I don't think anyone can beat Annapolis this year," lamented Old Mill coach Paul Bunting. "Glen Burnie is down. Broadneck may have a good team, but they don't have the players they had in the past. I know I don't."
And this from Severna Park coach Wayne Mook: "There isn't a coach in the county who doesn't know that the road to Cole Field House (site of the state playoffs) goes through Annapolis."
The 4A League has been realigned for North County -- the product of the merger between Andover and Brooklyn Park -- and Queen Anne's.
Five teams comprise the newly formed Friendship Division -- Arundel, Glen Burnie, Meade, North County and Old Mill. The Bay Division consists of Annapolis, Broadneck, Chesapeake, Queen Anne's and Severna Park. The first-place finishers of each division will not compete to determine an overall county champion.
Meanwhile, the 3A-2A League should feature another interesting battle between last year's co-champions -- Northeast and Southern -- and up-and-coming South River. All three made the playoffs last season.
The following is a look at the 12 county public school teams:
Finally, Annapolis coach John Brady shed the proverbial monkey from his back last year, winning his first state championship in 10 tries, 106-102, over High Point of Prince George's County.
The "Loyola Marymount" offense now in vogue at every level worked to absolute perfection for the Panthers, and more of the same is expected this season.
Annapolis, which has gone 217-33 over the past 10 years, houses an abundance of talented athletes and yet another trip to College Park could be in the offing.
Seniors Dennis Edwards, a 6-foot-5 forward who averaged 12 points a game last year, and 6-6 guard Delmore Howard headline the returnees. Junior forward Rob Wooster (6-5) completes the third link of a formidable triangle.
"With Dennis, Delmore and Rob, I think we have three of the top 10 players in the county," Brady said. "I think Dennis is among the top three players in the county."
Senior Jon Holden (6-9) appears the candidate most likely to inherit Ted Cottrell's center position, and the Panthers are deep at the guard position with the addition of sophomores Lozonnah James, Keith Watkins, Marvin Brown and Wendell Williams, who join returnees Gerard Hyman, Chad Clay and Kurt Wahlenstrom.
Brady hasn't lost his trademark sense of humor, claiming the Panthers will slow their attack to resemble Princeton University.
He won't lose many games, either.
Broadneck lost four of five starters, and six of its top eight players, from last year's 20-4 region finalist. The biggest loss, 6-6 center Matt Campbell, is irreplaceable.
Not that Coach Ken Kazmarek was trying to fill his shoes.
"Matt's virtually impossible to replace and we're not going into the season thinking we have to replace him," he said. "We'll build upon the strengths we have."
No single player can make up for the 26.1 points-per-game and 16.4 rebounds Campbell averaged last season, but Kazmarek likes the "committee" he fields for tonight's game at Glen Burnie.
"We have to be a team with a lot of kids contributing," he said. "We have five to eight kids who can contribute points. It will be a large team effort."
The greatest attribute is 5-11 senior point guard Johnny Williams, a superb ball handler and leader.
"I think Johnny will have a fantastic year," Kazmarek said, "but it's not fair for us to expect him to carry the load Matt did."
The veteran coach isn't demanding that highly publicized Boris Beck, a 7-2 German exchange student, do so, either. Kazmarek says Beck, who probably will come off the bench in the early going, is "improving every day," but the center still needs a great deal of work on basic skills.
"We shouldn't put too much pressure on Boris to be a factor early," Kazmarek said.
Instead, that duty falls to veterans like Williams, forwards Sean Tettemer (5-11) and Marlon Bailey (6-1) and guards Chris Ricks (5-8) and Mike Norton (5-10).
Six-foot newcomers Ken Lennox, a transfer from Texas, and Darnell Howard should provide immediate assistance to a team that also lost sharp-shooting forwards Adrian Spain and Casey Ryan to graduation.
Include Severna Park among the teams hoping to run-and-gun their way past Annapolis and into the state tournament.
"The bottom line is, the system we used for quite a while now wasn't getting us anywhere," said Mook, whose squad went 12-11 last year and lost to LaPlata in the region quarterfinals. "Our style of play hasn't been conducive to beating Annapolis. Teams that have had success against them in the past play an uptempo game -- shooting quickly, running like crazy, a lot of pressure defense."
Mook has retained 14 players on the Falcons' roster this season, compared to 12 in past years, and he plans to "rotate them in and out like crazy."
Junior Scott Brown, a 6-4 guard who averaged 12 points a game last season, and 6-4 senior forward Darrick Moran, will see plenty of minutes.
Those are Mook's primary sources of points and rebounds, respectively, now that Courtney Rocco and Kenny Coates have departed.
Another potential asset on the boards is 6-2 freshman forward Ron Green, a "Wes Unseld-type" who led the Falcons in rebounding during preseason scrimmages. Severna Park's roster is dominated by forwards, including seniors Ilya Chase (6-4) and Gerald Cager (6-4) and juniors Bobby Evans (6-3), Colin Harding (6-5) and West Virginia transfer Rich Riffle (6-5).
As of last Sunday, Mook still had not settled on a starting point guard.
Leading candidates are senior Eric Brown, junior Matt Glenn and sophomore Tim Bowerman.
Severna Park travels to LaPlata tonight and Northern on Friday before putting its new offense to the test next week against league rivals Broadneck and Annapolis.
Every team will look formidable to rebuilding Glen Burnie, which lost four starters, including Mike Thibeault, the Baltimore metro area's leading scorer at 29.6 points per game.
"We have five seniors, but no playing experience," said Gophers coach Terry Bogle, entering his 24th season. "This is a rebuilding year. We're committed to youth."
The lone returnees with much playing experience are Jeff Gross, a 6-5 junior center who started most of the games last year, and senior guard Kyle Hackett.
"I feel we have some good players, but our inexperience is really showing," Bogle said. "We're going through a transition period. We'll be starting two sophomores. We're young and inexperienced."
And they're vulnerable to beatings like the one they suffered Monday in a scrimmage with Edgewood.
"Edgewood showed us just where we are right now. They destroyed us," Bogle said.
Also hit hard by graduation was Old Mill, a region semifinalist last year that returns part-time starter Damien Sewell and a host of junior varsity talent.
"I'm definitely concerned, but being concerned doesn't do a whole lot of good," Bunting said. "We've got to suck it up and go."
Gone are inside powers Ed Cofield and Ray Fountain, and outside threats Greg Green, Craig Powell, John Kindley and Moonie Sewell, among others.
"We have depth -- we go nine or 10 deep, like last year -- but the depth isn't as experienced," Bunting said. "Of course, I may have said that last year. They could develop, but I don't see any Fountains or Greens."
What he finds, instead, are a small core of veterans like Damien Sewell, 6-1 senior forward Will Crowder and 6-3 senior center Shawn Craig.
Bunting hopes the members of last year's JV team (17-3) can make an immediate impact.
With the North County roster containing only two seniors, and the team's two tallest players -- both underclassmen -- standing just 6-2, the temptation exists to place the first-year Knights in the underdog category as they venture into 4A League play.
Not for Coach Brad Wilson, however.
"We're young, but we look pretty good so far. They're putting in a lot of hard work," said Wilson, who until last year had spent nine seasons as an assistant coach at Meade.
"A few of the guys played on the varsity at the other schools, so they know what kind of competition we'll be facing," he said.
Wilson has the unenviable task of trying to blend players from Brooklyn Park and Andover, programs that went a combined 12-31 in Class 1A and 2A, respectively, last season.
Seniors C.J. Prince, a guard, and John Ray, a forward, each stand 6-1 and will run the show for the defense-oriented squad. Their supporting cast includes juniors Chris Coleman (a 6-2 forward), Nate Fuller (5-11 guard), Troy Ross (6-0 guard) and Rob Miller (6-1 guard).
Wilson received a pleasant surprise from sophomore guard Shawn Moyer.
Another budding sophomore is Greg Sabo, whose older brother, Brian, scored more than 1,000 career points at Andover.
"We're going to be aggressive and we'll have to play great defense," Wilson said. "If we can run, we will. If we have to be patient, we will.
We're hoping that everything else will take care of itself."
Whether Meade returns to the upper echelon of the county 4A race hinges on the play of 6-1 senior guards David Beck and Ray Sommerville and 6-4 senior forward Ron Hubbard.
Hubbard is joined in the frontcourt by 6-8, 255-pound junior Brian Parker and 6-6, 220-pound senior Chris Botulinski, providing the Mustangs with ample bulk.
Veteran Meade coach Butch Young is concerned his frontcourt may be a step or two slow, which doesn't bode well for future track meets with Annapolis and Severna Park.
"We have to get our post players in shape," he said. "I think we may be just a little too heavy. They need to anticipate more under the boards. It doesn't matter how big or tall you are, if you don't move quickly toward the rebound, you get killed."
Young will discover in a hurry just what kind of shape the Mustangs are in. They take the floor against Annapolis tonight and Broadneck on Friday.
Arundel returns eight players with varsity experience from last year's 6-16 team, and Coach Gerald Moore is excited about the program's future.
"We're basically starting from the bottom up," he said. "We have a good staff (assistants Al Pindell and Chet Lipton) and we're working on building a winning attitude. We're going to try and turn things around here."
A key to doing just that is 6-3 junior Trevelin Queen (6-3), who is expected to produce big numbers from the forward position, while 5-10 guard Tony Watson and 6-4 forward Larry Dobson provide senior leadership.
"Trevelin worked very hard on his game over the summer," Moore said.
"Last season was his first year of organized ball. He was mainly a street ball player. I think his overall game will improve this year.
How much will Chesapeake improve from last season's two-win debacle?
Probably enough to satisfy Coach Tom Kraning.
"I think we have the capability of scoring both inside and out," he said. "The kids just have to believe in themselves. We're not awfully slow this year and we have some kids that can shoot."
Center Brian King (6-8) is back for his senior season, and junior point guard Mark Hall directs the Cougar offense.
Other returnees include Louis and Wes Van Wambeke -- a guard and forward, respectively -- forward Daryl Reid and guard Chris Rizzo.
After yet another winning season and playoff appearance, Southern coach Tom Albright turned to economics when comparing this year's team to last year's version.
"We're kind of in a depression, but I have a feeling we'll come up with an economic solution," said Albright, who has the longest tenure -- 26 years -- of any of the county's active coaches.
Albright lost standout players in Gregg Tyler, Windel Estep and Cedric Mason to graduation. Still, he isn't worried.
"We're just going to have to adjust to not having them," he said.
"People know what we've always done. We're going to press and we're going to run. We don't have the height that we had last year, but we've got the same amount of speed.
"I'm not going to change anything because of inexperience. The only way this team is going to get there is to play at the same level. It's what I've been doing since 1968."
With four state titles to his credit, Albright continually churns out teams rich in talent. And this year is no exception, beginning with senior All-County guard Vince Barnett, a 5-9 Division I prospect who averaged 24 points per game last year.
Joining Barnett on the perimeter are senior guard Clayton Pinkney (5-7) and senior guard-forward Alvin Gross (6-2). Alternating at forward and center will be seniors Ray Mudd (6-1) and Mark Thomas (6-4).
Albright expects juniors Mike Eicens (6-3), Chris Thomas (6-1), Jesse Marks (6-0) and sophomore Terrell Jones (5-11) to blend into his run-and-shoot offense and his system of coast-to-coast defense.
Those upperclassmen will be pushed by a corps of hungry sophomores from the county champion junior varsity squad, including 6-0 guard Troy Dennis, Fred McGee and John Gee.
Besides league rival and perennial power Southern, the other big problem for Coach John Barbour and his Northeast team will be erasing last season's accomplishments from memory.
The Eagles don't need the pressure.
"We're going to have to be a team that creates its own identity," said Barbour, in his 12th season. "We have the personnel and similar capabilities as last year's team, but I don't know whether we can accomplish what we did last year."
After a 5-17 season in 1988, the Eagles went 17-7 a year ago -- Barbour's fourth-best record.
Last year, Andy Srebroski (19 points, 8.9 rebounds) set a school record in steals. He and 6-5 Robbie Kelm, both lost to graduation, created a lot of action for the Eagles.
That role now falls to four returning starters -- point guard Gene Pleyo (6-0), swingman Craig Everett (6-1), forward Steve Strauss (6-3) and center Kevin Mursch (6-3).
Strauss (13.9 points, 6.4 rebounds), a senior, is the Eagles' top returning scorer and rebounder and Mursch, a 200-pounder, averaged nearly five points and 6.3 rebounds.
"We'll have to be flexible both offensively and defensively and take advantage of the other teams' weaknesses," said Barbour. "On the perimeter, we shoot well as a team, but our biggest weakness will be in size. All of our big guys are thin except Mursch."
Forward Allen Tetrault (6-0) and forward-center Zach Herold (6-4) came off the bench last season and will do the same this year as they battle for the fifth starting spot. They will be pushed by eight talented players up from a 13-7 junior varsity squad, including top scorer Scott Rey, a 6-3 junior.
Although South River has three solid leaders in senior forward Larry Gross (6-0), and juniors Ed Hicks (6-3 forward) and Al Lee (6-0 guard), Coach Ken Dunn still is trying to mold his team.
"We have a little more total team experience than last year and we'll get better as the season goes on," said Dunn, whose Seahawks finished 11-12 a year ago, losing to Charles County's Thomas Stone in the first round of the playoffs.
"In practice, the effort we're getting out of the players is outstanding, we're just a little inconsistent right now," he said.
With Hicks, Gross and Lee controlling the perimeter, Dunn will look to senior Chance Hall (6-2) to head up the inside game.
Hall will be supported with some height under the boards in 6-5 sophomore centers Darren Hall and Fred Goodson and junior forwards Jason Fulmer and Chris Dudley.
Junior guards Kevin Collison (5-11) and Jimmy Wilson (5-10), junior forward Brian Patterson (6-1) and sophomores Robert Randall (6-3 forward), Clayton Wilson (6-1 forward) and Gregg Avery (5-9 guard) add depth.