Old Mill girls basketball coach Pat Chance cannot remember such parity ever existing in the Class 4A League.
"I personally think this could be the toughest 4A division we've ever had," said Chance, now in her 15th year. "You've got Chesapeake with a lot of girls back who could dump some people, North County is strong, Broadneck is strong, and Severna Park always has to be considered. And who knows what will happen with Annapolis. That could be the team that comes on at the end of the season.
"On any given night, any team could knock someone else off. No one will be lighting up victory cigars in the first quarter."
So who will emerge as the league's best once the smoke clears? A debatable issue, indeed.
"It's not like last year, where Broadneck was really dominant, and everybody else was looking to play the spoiler's role," said Glen Burnie coach Colleen Stauffer.
The 4A League currently is split into two divisions -- the "Friendship" (Arundel, Glen Burnie, Meade, North County and Old Mill) and "Bay" (Annapolis, Broadneck, Chesapeake, Queen Anne's and Severna Park).
Meanwhile, the representatives of the 3A-2A League -- Northeast, Southern and South River -- look to return to the postseason despite losing integral members to graduation.
The following is a look at the 12 county public school teams:
Bruce Springer avoids comparing his Broadneck teams of present and past, and it's just as well. It would take too long to break down all the differences between last year's state champion and this winter's entry.
The departure of guards Tammy Brown, Betsy Given and Stacie Conroy has shifted the emphasis to the inside, where forward Brooke Smith also was lost to graduation. Sounds pretty hopeless, right?
Wrong. Though lacking the overall talent of the teams that won 45 games over the past two seasons, Broadneck still measures up to -- and beyond -- the rest of the 4A League with a trio of 6-footers: senior Andrea Macey (6-0) and juniors Theresa Cornish (6-3) and Jennifer Chapman (6-1).
The program also gained 5-11 junior Sarah Bannat, a transfer from St.
Mary's, who provides more size underneath the basket.
"The inside players are going to have to carry the load for a while until the guards can mature a little and get some experience," Springer said.
The backcourt starters in Wednesday's opener against Glen Burnie were 5-5 senior Crystal Adams and 5-9 junior newcomer Michelle Meyer. Springer replaces Meyer with 5-8 senior Talaya Williams, giving him two guards boasting "experience and familiarity with the system."
"They know what we're trying to do," Springer said.
That doesn't include repeating the feats of the past two seasons.
"As far as duplicating last year, I haven't even thought about anything like that, and neither have they," Springer said. "This team has a new identity for itself. They've worked very hard, and they're learning more every day. If they keep doing that, by middle of season we could be pretty decent. We may come around and surprise a person or two."
A young Old Mill team shocked many in the county last year by going 18-6 and coming within one game of the state playoffs. But Chance says the Patriots, minus only one starter from last season and fielding five sophomores who will see considerable playing time, "still have a lot of work to do before we're in contention for anything."
"I don't feel real prepared to start this week," she said Tuesday, before Old Mill blitzed Queen Anne's, 61-12, in their opener. "People think we're going to start off like we finished last year. Well, we're not."
Though all showed promise as freshmen last year, Chance says guards Chris Baer (5-6), Stacy Himes (5-9) and Lee Ann Lezzer (5-8), and forwards Allison Wentworth (5-9) and Debbie Dawson (6-0) still need to hone their skills.
"They all got a lot of playing time. but it's still not enough," she said. "They still make sophomore mistakes. They still have a lot to learn.
"No matter how much playing time sophomores have, they're still physically weaker than juniors and seniors. The book says basketball is a non-contact sport, but that's not true. It's a contact sport."
Therefore, Chance's main concern lies with the Patriots' talented, but still developing, frontcourt.
"That's where we have to get a lot stronger before we can be what I consider a real well-rounded, strong team; scoring, rebounding, the whole nine yards," she said.
The backcourt is deep, with junior Glen Burnie transfer Jennifer Schmittle (5-7) and seniors Denise Zellers (5-7) and Sandy Johnson (5-4) joining the three sophomores. Johnson led the Patriots in scoring last season.
When asked if Old Mill is ready to take the next step and unseat Broadneck as region titlists, Chance said, "Right off the bat, I think we're a year away, but I don't know. These kids work hard, and if they can improve on some areas, they could be there. But right now, they've got a lot of work to do to get to that point."
Coach Kevin McGrath was singing the same tune earlier this week when discussing his Severna Park girls.
McGrath has implemented a new system to take advantage of the Falcons' quickness and to compensate for a lack of height.
"I believe if everything falls into place, we'll be fine. It's just that it's taking longer," he said.
"Last year, we could go inside to Karen (Parker), but we don't have that luxury. We'll try and do the best we can with what we have."
McGrath still has plenty of fine athletes, led by the 5-9 Riley twins -- point guard Tami and guard-forward Tina. They're being called on to help fill the void left by Parker, Erika Mawhorr and Katie Laidley, who accounted for about 75 percent of Severna Park's offense last year.
Parker, a 6-1 All-County center, averaged around 10 rebounds a game as well.
This year, "it's kind of like win by committee, rebound by committee, score by committee," McGrath said.
That means much is expected of senior returnees Ann Heiser (5-10), Barb Geary (5-10) and Ellen Westcoat (5-8) and junior Kerri Schmale (5-6).
McGrath also is counting on sophomore point guard Amy Carnaggio and 5-11 sophomore center Brandee Snyder to give quality minutes.
First-year North County coach Sally Entsminger has requested an early gift from Santa Claus, one which will help bring her team together.
She hopes that the girls on her newly formed Knights basketball squad get to know each other -- and her system -- because she's certainly not banking on the goodwill of her 4A League rivals.
"We're still doing that, getting to know each other and getting players in the right spots," said Entsminger, a former athletic director and 18-year girls basketball coach at Andover. "But we've only got five games until the (Dec. 27-29) Spalding tournament, and that's not a lot of time.
Otherwise, we could be making changes all the way up to Christmas."
Seniors Kim Miller (6-foot center), Tina Miller (5-6 guard) and junior forward Renita Johnson (5-10) all helped Brooklyn Park to a runner-up finish in last year's 1A state championship game. They join former Andover starters Elise Maccubbin (5-9 forward) and Lisa Betz (5-6 guard).
"The girls are aggressive and they communicate well," Entsminger said.
"Defensively, we're going to go after people, and we'll be looking to run as often as we can. And if you're going to run, you've got to have some players on the bench who will develop and eventually help out."
With senior Stephanie Meyer (5-6), juniors Amy Helms (5-11) and Tonya Kolodziejski (5-8) and sophomores Becky Webb (5-7) and Nicki Faulkner (5-2) waiting in the wings, Entsminger won't hesitate to go to her bench.
The Glen Burnie bench currently holds senior Kelly Wagner, a 5-9 forward-center who sprained her left ankle in a recent scrimmage against North County. Her leadership is vital to a team with as many returning sophomores (three) as seniors.
"They're young, they're very inexperienced," said Coach Stauffer. "Kelly Wagner probably has the most playing experience on the whole team. She's been on varsity all four years. Even though I have a lot of seniors (seven), most are from JV."
None are over 5-9, which places greater importance on the guard position, where the team only averaged six points a game last year in going 7-15 and losing to Old Mill in the region quarterfinals.
Returning at the point is 5-4 sophomore Kelly Rodgers, who Stauffer said is "much improved over last year."
"We want to push the ball up the floor when we have it. We realize the transition game is going to help us," Stauffer said.
"We'll have to box out, and our guards will have to get the offense going from the outside. We can't depend on only working the ball down low."
When they do, 5-7 senior Christy Hutson, 5-6 junior Lee Mallonee and 5-9 sophomore Melissa Schaffer will be there to catch it.
"I don't know if we're going to win it all," Stauffer said, "but looking at the league, I'd say we probably have as good a shot as anybody at finishing up high."
Meade coach Molly Wilson leads her "Kiddie Korps" into battle this year after going 12-9 and reaching the region quarterfinals last season.
Vonnita Pinkett, a 5-9 junior forward who averaged seven points a game last year, has inherited the leadership role vacated by graduates Nikki Beall and Yalonda Wilkens.
"I think Vonnita is finally coming out of her shell," Wilson said. "Last year, she was sort of quiet and let Yalonda do all of the talking. Now she's finally beginning to step forward."
Other key members of the Mustangs include junior guard-forward Amy Ness, freshman guard Angie Bailey -- who netted 12 points in Wednesday's 35-29 win over Annapolis -- and sophomore forward Adrian Toles, who Wilson said has "lots of potential."
"In the future, Adrian will probably become an impact player," Wilson said. "She has plenty of raw talent, excellent offensive skills, good instincts; plus she's very aggressive. She has all of the tools necessary to be a great player."
The Chesapeake trio of Amy Ordakowski (5-9), Sherri Malloy (5-6) and Julie Henne (5-6) return for their final seasons under Coach Ginger Woods.
Ordakowski, a forward who averaged in double figures in both scoring and rebounding last year, anchors the Cougars' front line, while Henne spearheads the backcourt.
"I think we have some good speed at guard," Woods said. "We'll have a good season as long as we mesh together as a team, and we keep the turnovers down."
Returning junior forward Mattie Cymek will aid Ordakowski under the basket, along with classmates Michelle League and Denise Perrone.
After suffering through a 6-16 season, Arundel coach Lee Rogers wants to see his players have fun -- and progress competitively.
"Our main goals this year are to improve on last year's record and have some fun out on the court," he said. "With this year's team, I think it'll be a lot easier to do both."
Especially with the presence of senior transfer guard Donna Parker (5-9) and juniors Mary Pat Fannon (5-4 guard) and Michelle Harrison (5-9 forward).
Junior forward LaToi Long and 6-0 senior center Tiffany Clayton work inside, while junior Julie James assists Fannon and Parker on the perimeter.
Annapolis welcomes transfers Christine Webb (senior) and Lisa Roberts (junior) to a team that finished 3-18 overall during 1989-1990.
Senior forwards Markieta Edwards (game-high 14 points against Meade Wednesday) and Carol Ann Monger, senior guards Tershia Turner and Shenell Coates and junior guard Missy Gordon all return for rookie coach Teresa Ross.
"We don't have any great players, but we do have some talent," she said.
"It'll just take time to get things going. I know who my first three starters will be (Webb, Roberts and junior forward Diedre Downs), but the other two spots are up in the air."
Last year, Coach Calvin Vain helped Northeast set a precedent in county girls basketball by twice defeating Southern, the last time for the Class 2A regional title.
Vain said the initial triumph was the first-ever for the Eagles over the Bulldogs.
"We lost about 25 points per game and a bit of athletic ability and strength with the graduation of Monica Everett, Heather Kotula and Crissy Sisk," said Vain, The Anne Arundel County Sun's Coach of the Year last season. "But this year our guards are a little faster and we'll actually be a little stronger on the inside. We're not as dependent on any one player, and our bench is capable of scoring some points."
The Eagles have been making adjustments from the start, with senior center Stephanie Lazor (5-11) and senior guards Kristy Zulka (5-8) and Tammy Kuebel (5-5) coming off injuries.
Lazor (11 points, 10.4 rebounds) is healing from a knee injury, and Kuebel is recovering from an ankle injury.
Zulka, who had knee surgery this past summer, led the county with 38 three-pointers last season, but isn't expected back until sometime during the midseason. Vain is looking to 5-11 junior center Debbi Dadds (five points, 10 rebounds), 5-8 junior forward Jenn Vickery and 5-6 junior guard Stacy Reynolds to help ease the loss.
Junior Jenelle Williams (5-7) and sophomores April Hensley (5-8) and Kathleen Smith (5-6) also are ready to step in.
"We realize that we have as much talent returning as anyone else, and that we're capable of getting into the playoffs," Vain said. "Hopefully, we can duplicate what we did last year."
In order to remain competitive with the other two 3A-2A teams, Southern coach Linda Kilpatrick said her Bulldogs must overcome the inexperience of youth and become accustomed to a balanced offensive scheme that is not geared toward one standout player.
"I knew this would be a rebuilding year. I lost six of my top seven players, and I don't have a dominant player like (last year's leading scorer Kelly) Archambo," said Kilpatrick, who is in her 14th season.
"I had 17 freshmen come out for the team and four of them are on the varsity. Right now we're emphasizing defense and rebounding, and they're slowly learning the system."
Two of the freshmen, 5-11 centers Laekeka Wesley and Lisa Biederman, are expected to undergo a baptism of fire as they assist 6-foot starting senior center Landra Phillips.
"I don't want to put too much pressure on them, but a lot depends on how that inside game develops," Kilpatrick said.
The Bulldogs' three perimeter players -- senior Lindee Sisk (5-9) and 5-6 junior guards Talaya Barnett and Kim Smith -- have been doing their part. Senior forward Susan Shaffer (5-7) is another returning starter.
"They've been doing the bulk of the scoring," said Kilpatrick. "We haven't been blown away in any of our scrimmages, but we'll need more contributions from the rest of the team. We'll rely on a lot of steals and turnovers for the bulk of the scoring, because we're not going to dominate in a half-court game."
South River coach Jim Morton is trying to keep an open mind about his team's chances against 3A-2A rivals Northeast and Southern this season.
"Making the playoffs is always a goal," said Morton, whose Seahawks lost to Great Mills in last year's region quarterfinals. "Our success will be measured more so in terms of development, not in wins and losses."
Morton does know that if his team is going to be competitive, it needs an effective replacement for departed point guard Stacey Dent, who now plays at Anne Arundel Community College.
"That's the critical spot," Morton said.
He is looking to petite junior Bea Ulrich (5-4) to direct an offense that includes juniors Collette Marquis (5-6), Tracy Zettle (5-7) and Peggy Schreiber (5-6) -- each of whom saw action last season. The trio will alternate in their guard-forward duties.
The team's only senior, center Vivi Patterson (5-7), will be the focus of the inside game, but she should get help from 5-11 freshman Pam Patterson. Last year's starter, Jill Jordan, has graduated.
"Patterson's size will help in terms of scoring," Morton said. "Our defense looks like it'll be in good shape, but we'll have to continue to use a lot of quickness and pressure."