Another high school girls basketball season is under way, and Mount Hebron is defending county and state championships.
So what else is new?
Each year, the Vikings loom as the county's biggest target. Everybody wants a piece of a perennial top dog like Hebron, which capped a 23-1 season last spring by winning its fourth Class 2A state championship in five seasons. Along the way, Hebron went undefeated against the county to win its 10th league title in 12 years under Coach Dave Greenberg, who owns a career record of 243-51 (.827 winning percentage), including 156-12 (.929) against the county.
Although Hebron returns a formidable team -- led by returning starters Cescili Drake and Andrea Day -- the county's playing field is as packed as ever with strong challengers.
"It's amazing we keep winning every year," Greenberg said. "There's too many good teams out there. The rest of the county is getting better, and will continue to get better. Some teams have already passed us in terms of athleticism. We can be beaten. If we don't play well, we'll get beat. We're just trying to postpone that."
Greenberg has plenty of teams to watch over his shoulder, beginning with his chief challenger from last year, Oakland Mills. The Scorpions had their best season (19-4) in school history last year. They return four starters, field the league's most athletic team and hope to knock off Hebron for the first time in five years. They also have their eyes on a Class 3A state title.
Many other teams look improved. Howard, which saw guard Kristi Greer emerge as the league's top scorer last year, should be stronger with the addition of forward Krista Fulton. Fulton returns after missing the last two months of last season with a neck injury.
Glenelg has a new coach in Barb Wolf, but the Gladiators return one of the league's more talented, experienced teams and one of its more exciting players in junior guard Tanissa Dorsey.
Then there's Wilde Lake, which fought its way to a surprising .500 record last year and returns a still-young but up-and-coming squad led by junior guard Renita Young. Centennial had a disappointing season, but turned the ball over to a youthful, promising group that figures to take the Eagles back to respectability this year.
Atholton lost Player of the Year Sherri Orlosky to graduation. Yet the Raiders might fool some people if a talented group of players moving up from a great junior varsity team mature as Coach Graydon Webster expects.
Even Hammond, last year's doormat with a 1-21 record, is blessed with what could be the best infusion of young talent in the league.
Here's a team-by-team analysis:
The Raiders are one of the league's more curious teams. That's because people are wondering how they'll will fare in the absence of Player of the Year Sherri Orlosky, who has taken her wonderful talent to Notre Dame on a full scholarship.
Atholton returns two starters and will depend heavily on a handful of newcomers up from the junior varsity, which went 16-4 last year. Although he's concerned about inexperience, Webster thinks the Raiders will shine in other areas.
"Overall, we've got more depth, more height, more quickness and more court sense than last year," he says. "We were fairly competitive before Sherri, and we'll be fairly competitive without her."
The Raiders will be anchored by 5-9 senior power forward Erika Kean and sophomore point guard Allison Valentino. Kean averaged 10 points and 11.5 rebounds last year. Valentino averaged four points, four steals and four assists. Both should improve this year, especially Valentino in the area of scoring.
Webster will call on 5-7 senior guard/forward Denise Richardson and 5-7 junior forward Juanita Thompson -- reserve players last year -- to step into more pronounced roles. Richardson is off to a great start, averaging 8.5 steals and nine rebounds to spark the Raiders to a 2-1 record.
A promising core of newcomers gives Webster a nice blend of size, strength and quickness that may dictate how far the Raiders go.
Two 5-5 junior guards -- Vanessa Clack and Julie Ruprecht -- should provide depth in the backcourt. Clack's strong suit is defense and ball-handling. Ruprecht has a good outside shot. And two forwards -- 5-11 sophomore Kelly Smith and 6-0 junior Dana McGraw -- should give Atholton rebounds and toughness inside. All four figure to battle for starting jobs.
"I've got some advantages. I can start a group that's all 5-9 and runs well or a small team that passes well," Webster says.
The Raiders will have a tough time equaling last year's 15-victory total, but by the season's second half, they may prove to be quite a headache for opponents.
Coach Larry Kinsey suffered through a 6-13 season last year, mainly because he decided in mid-season to give the ball to a nucleus of inexperienced underclassmen. Kinsey thinks that experience will better equip them to lead the Eagles to an improved showing this year.
"I got some freshman feet wet. They got some seasoning," Kinsey said.
"Our weak point is inexperience, but the overall talent I have this year is better than ever. The challenge is to mold it into a good basketball team."
The Eagles will look to the backcourt of 5-4 sophomore point guard Kelly Butler and 5-6 junior shooting guard Becky Joeckel, who each improved greatly toward the end of last season. Butler is probably the team's most improved player, especially in the ball-handling area. Joeckel, the leading scorer last year, has helped Centennial to a 2-0 start by averaging 10 points.
The Eagles have scored over 50 points in each victory. Last year, they rarely scored 40.
Another big reason for Kinsey's optimism is 6-0 sophomore forward Shannon Saltzmann, who has already scored 16 points in a game and shows flashes of dominance inside. The same goes for senior center Heather Jones, who at 5-7 is very strong inside and will also start.
Centennial is complemented further by three great returning athletes -- 5-7 sophomore guard Laura Taneyhill and 5-7 senior forward Lisa Taneyhill, both All-County volleyball players, and 5-5 senior guard Meg Caro, an All-County soccer player. Taneyhill will start.
Among the new players who figures to make an impact, first-year senior guard/forward Kim Bahti, a 5-9 transfer from Tucson, Ariz., leads the way.
Kinsey says she has more athletic ability than anyone he's ever coached.
First-year coach Barb Wolf may have the league's most exciting player in 5-6 junior point guard Tanissa Dorsey. She also may have the county's most underrated team.
Dorsey emerged as a starter six weeks into last season, and led Glenelg to a 15-9 finish by averaging 7.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, four assists and 2.5 steals. Look for a big season from her.
And Glenelg has much more than Dorsey, namely a fine mix of height, experience and talent. Dorsey will work in the backcourt with three returnees: junior Jen Leedom (5-7) and seniors Kate Brinker (5-6) and Kara Meissner (5-4). It's a well-rounded group with lots of varsity experience.
Brinker is excellent defensively.
Glenelg also looks strong up front, with 5-10 senior forward Leslie Service -- the team's leading scorer after its 2-0 start -- and 5-9 senior Shannon McCartney. Service started last year.
Wolf said she is most surprised by the Gladiators' quickness, which will allow them to play a transition game.
"We're a fast-paced team, a running team. We've got good athletes, and we'll probably pick up a couple of wins on that alone," Wolf said. "Our skill level on offense is very good, and we have a lot of good individual defensive players."
Look for the Gladiators to stay in contention.
The Bears are already excited about this season. With their 45-31 victory over South Carroll last week, they equaled last year's victory total and scored more points than at any time a year ago.
"Our motto this year is 'One Way', as in the only way to go is up," said Coach Joe Russo. "We're going to be a lot better this year. We're going to be competitive."
The Bears, 1-21 and winless against the county last year, are young, inexperienced and lack depth, but they do return four starters.
Emily Minah, a 5-10 senior center, led Hammond in scoring (12) and rebounding (10) last year. Minah and 5-9 sophomore forward Kristen Moraz should give Hammond a decent frontcourt. In the backcourt, 5-6 senior Mary Sly and 5-5 sophomore Jennifer Garlick both shoot well from the outside.
Freshman point guard Kacey Williams (5-5) is the main reason for Russo's optimism. She has already shown great ball-handling and passing ability and had six points, six assists and six steals in the South Carroll victory.
"She's probably the best freshman out there. She can break the press," Russo said. "She's going to be a star in a few years."
Another freshman, 5-8 forward Sonia Kiener, has also been impressive.
Beyond that, the Bears bench is questionable.
Hammond promises to be a different team in that Russo will try to avoid the zone defenses that were shredded last year. He plans an attacking man-to-man. He also plans to rely on transition offense more, since Williams and Kiener add more quickness.
"We can play real good defense, and we really hustle," Russo said.
"We've still got to work on our rebounding since we're not that tall, and we've got to work on our shooting consistency. But they're excited. They're confident. I think we can play with about half the teams in the county."
The Lions, 11-13 last year, look like the most improved team in the league, now that Krista Fulton has rejoined them.
Fulton is the talented 5-10 junior forward who suffered a neck injury last December and missed the rest of the season. Although she has been battling soreness in the neck in the early going, Fulton, a fine outside shooter, has performed well during the Lions' 2-0 start.
"I'm surprised by how well she's played," said Coach Craig O'Connell.
"She showed a little rust in practice, but she looks great now."
Fulton's presence is crucial to Howard's success. She takes pressure off senior 5-7 guard Kristi Greer, who stepped up in Fulton's absence last year to take over the Lions and earn All-County First Team honors (17.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 4.4 steals). Greer, one of the top hustlers in the league, is Player of the Year material.
Two other returning starters -- 5-8 guard Camille Powell and 5-7 forward Emily Petrlik -- give Howard good balance. Petrlik is steady and hard-working around the basket. Powell made major strides in the second half of last season.
From there, the Lions lack experience and size. They lost Nicole Brown (10 points, 10 rebounds), who moved out of state last year. And out of their seven newcomers, 5-8 junior forward Kara Gontkovic figures to start.
Their depth looks shaky.
"People think we're real experienced, but we're not," O'Connell said.
"My starters are going to have to play a lot of minutes."
That could be difficult, since O'Connell wants the Lions to play an up-tempo, full-court game to take advantage of their outside quickness and minimize their lack of inside strength.
"We can be a .500 team, but that's not good enough," O'Connell added.
"Realistically, we have as good a shot as any other team for third place, and I think we can play with the other two (Mount Hebron and Oakland Mills). It depends on our intensity."
The Vikings lost First Team All-County players Tammy Webster and Amy Eberhart to graduation and will miss their quickness and all-around skills.
Then again, Hebron loses great players every year and look where they stay.
Hebron will place the defense of its county and state championships largely in the hands of the McCauley sisters -- Erica and Christy -- who form two-thirds of an excellent backcourt. Erica, a 5-2 sophomore point guard, is a terrific ballhandler and outside shooter who appears to have overcome the back ailment that nagged her last year.
Christy, a 5-6 senior, is the team's best shooter and also handles the ball well.
Then there's Cescili Drake, the 5-6 senior guard headed for the University of North Carolina-Greensboro on a full scholarship. Drake is the signature of the Vikings' trademark -- a trapping, man-to-man defense that often breaks opponents early. She was the county's top defensive player last year.
Newcomer Emily Yanero, a 5-7 sophomore, gives Hebron a good scorer off the bench.
The Vikings will be slower but stronger up front. Senior 5-9 forward Andrea Day, the team's best rebounder, returns to start. Sandra Benson, a 5-9 sophomore forward who was great off the bench last year, assumes a starting role. And the team's biggest reinforcement, 6-0 sophomore forward Kris Bryant, should give Hebron quality minutes.
"Our perimeter people are strong on paper, and our inside people other than Andrea are going to have to develop. This is close to the biggest team we've ever had," said Coach Dave Greenberg.
The Vikings are off to a 2-1 start, and their first loss in 25 games was a big one -- 60-26 to Downingtown High School in last week's Strathaven Tournament in Pennsylvania.
"We're nowhere where we need to be defensively, and our shooting has to get better," Greenberg said. "We're cautiously optimistic. Our primary goal is to get back to Catonsville (Community College, site of the state playoffs)."
The Scorpions had their best season in school history last year, although they failed to beat Mount Hebron in two tries and suffered a disappointing loss to Thomas Johnson in the regional playoffs. They head into this year again with the team most likely to beat Hebron.
Oakland Mills returns a terrific foursome of starters. Their senior backcourt of 5-8 guard Mia Dammen and 5-6 point guard Stefanie Magro is the league's quickest. Dammen, an All-County First Team selection last year (13.6 points, 10 steals), makes life difficult with her relentless defense.
Magro is a more well-rounded finesse player. A big season from her could put the Scorpions over the top.
In the frontcourt, senior forwards Christine Copeland (5-10) and Andrea Romich (5-9) are excellent at both ends of the floor. Romich averaged 8.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and made Second Team All-County last year. Copeland should be in that class this year.
"I've got the nucleus," says Coach Teresa Waters, whose team is off to a 2-0 start. "The pressure they apply and the way they work together is going to get us through. When you think about character and leadership, those four will make coaching easy for me."
Beyond those four, the Scorpions still have to answer some questions.
Can senior 5-6 guard Suzanne Willis, a returnee, find a consistent shooting touch? Can sophomore newcomer Connie Copeland, a 5-11 forward, team up with her sister to give the Scorpions more strength in the paint? Will the Scorpions discover a dependable outside shooter now that Shannon Grieve has graduated?
Waters is also concerned about the bench, which was depleted with the graduation of players like forwards Erika Smith and Christina Scott and guard Teah Wedlock. She hopes freshmen guards Melissa Singleton and Kristen Ostlie and freshmen forward Amy Caldwell mature quickly.
The Wildecats were a pleasant surprise last year, going 11-11 before getting eliminated in the second round of the regional playoffs.
Four starters return -- three of them underclassmen -- and they're led by junior 5-4 point guard guard Renita Young, a Second Team All-County selection who averaged 10.5 points and 2.3 steals. Coach Dave Nesbitt looks for more production from Young, who is fully recovered from a knee injury she nursed while playing last year.
Young's backcourt partner is an exciting newcomer, 5-7 freshman Kim Dreissen, who earned the shooting guard job hands down.
The Wildecats also have good size and ability in the frontcourt. Senior 5-7 Kristi Lindblad, sophomore 5-9 forward Tracy Stefan and 5-11 junior forward Sara Johnson are back in starting roles. Stefan, a good scorer and rebounder who is the best of the three, is nursing a knee injury she suffered over the summer.
"It's the age-old problem of depth," Nesbitt says. "We're OK for the first six or seven players, but then the lack of experience will be a factor.
"Our strength is a very strong backcourt and our defense," he added. "We don't have the speed to run with an Oakland Mills, but if we keep the game in the 40s, we have a decent chance to win."