SOFTBALL IS SET, BUT BASEBALL HAS MOUND OF QUESTIONS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They're coming off a state championship season.

They've got nine of 10 starters returning from a team that went 21-1 a year ago.

And their coach swears they're not overconfident.

They, of course, are the North Carroll Panthers, and they're back to defend theirstate, region, Central Maryland Conference and county titles -- witha vengeance.

And it's too bad for other county teams that the Panthers are loaded with so much returning talent this year, because a couple of other county squads also have a plethora of returning starters -- though from teams that were not at North Carroll's level in 1990.

What that means, of course, is that the battle for second should be interesting, with Liberty, South Carroll and, perhaps Westminster, all in the hunt.

And in the Central Maryland Conference, figurethose same three plus Thomas Johnson in a free-for-all for second.

Francis Scott Key, which didn't win until the final game of the season last year, should have the talent to move up in the Monocacy Valley Athletic League, while Western Maryland College may have its most talented team ever.

FRANCIS SCOTT KEY EAGLES

Coach Joe Linthicum figures he's got the talent to improve on last year's 1-16 team -- as long as the bats come alive. The Eagles' team batting average was in the .200s last year -- paltry for high school softball -- and they'llneed to improve.

Key scored four runs or less in 11 games (with one shutout) and that's a sure way to earn an "L" in softball. Four seniors who started most of last year will be needed to provide the offensive leadership.

"The pitching is better than it was this time last year," Linthicum said after a scrimmage last week with Linganore High of Frederick County. Junior Kathy Bower gets the nod on the mound.

In the Monocacy Valley Athletic League, Catoctin was top dog last year with an 18-0 record, and the Cougars advanced to the state finals before losing. But their starting battery graduated, and Linthicum figures they'll come back to the pack, as should second-place Boonsboro, which has a new coach.

Linthicum looks for Smithsburg and Walkersville -- last year's third- and fourth-place teams, respectively -- to battle for this year's title.

LIBERTY LIONS

Coach Dale Green says offense and defense will be the Lions' strength this season, and he's excited about the potential of his pitching staff, which took part in fast-pitch clinics over the winter.

Heather Dobelstein, who had a homer and three doubles last year, returns as designated hitter from the 7-11 team.

Brenda Temko and Andrea Dixon also saw time on the mound last year, with Dixon going 2-1 after moving up from the junior varsity. "Both of them are experienced and both of them worked very hard," Green said.

The generally strong showing by Liberty's other girls teams this year, especially in basketball, is another plus. Senior Cindy Leeds (3B), junior Kelly Foreman (1B) and sophomore Amy Wolff (CF) all played on the basketball squad.

NORTH CARROLL PANTHERS

Some coaches with as much in their favor as North Carroll's Phil Bonnell might be concerned about overconfidence, but the fifth-year head coach doesn't see it that way.

"I don't believe (overconfidence) is going to be a problem with that group," he said.

Theteam starts with pitcher Michelle Ament, who is accurate but not overpowering, so opposing batters hit the ball in play. Then, her teammates gobble up everything in sight, making few mental or physical errors.

Offensively, there's power, led by shortstop Sandy Johnson (six doubles and a homer) and center fielder Vicki Jackson (six doubles and a triple). But the Panthers are equally at home scratching out runs with timely hits and some speed on the base paths.

North Carroll's only loss last year was a 7-6 setback against Thomas Johnson, forwhich the Panthers gained revenge three later games against the Pats. But South Carroll also played the Panthers tough, and Bonnell expects more of the same this year.

SOUTH CARROLL CAVALIERS

Finding consistent starting pitching is high on coach Debbie Barnes' list of priorities heading into the season. Kelly Clutter moves up from the B team, while Paula Moyer looks to split time between the mound and third, and outfielder Liz Masterson also will do some pitching.

Defensively, Barnes said her team did well last year and she figures with 10returning players, including most of the starters, it should do the same this year.

Offensively, seniors Dan Carter (SS) and DannielleHall (2B) supplied much of the punch last year, and sophomore Melissa Moore could be the most talented 10th-grader in the county.

"If we can get decent pitching and hit a little bit, we'll do well," Barnes said.

WESTMINSTER OWLS

Coach Kathy Hodgkins is looking at some unfamiliar varsity faces this year, with just five back from last year's 5-13 team, but several of the newcomers have names familiar to followers of area recreation softball -- Kasim McLain, Stephanie Harrell and Steffanie Owings.

Leading the returning contingent are Jacqui Harmon and Karen Walker, who teamed for two doubles, two triples and a homer last year. Harmon is taking her first shot at pitching, andlikely will share mound duties with Owings when not playing first base.

"We're fielding a better team than last year," said Hodgkins, who said she thought last year's team didn't perform as well as she had expected.

"Offensively, we should be pretty good," she said. "We've got some quick girls. From what I've seen, they look good defensively, too."

WEST. MD. GREEN TERRORS

Though this team may not produce the best record in Western Maryland softball history, coach George Dix figures it will be the most talented team in Green Terrors' history.

The first several teams in the early 1980s under coach CarolFritz had strong records, but area Division III softball was in its infancy. More schools are playing now, and more players are recruited, but the Terrors have struggled lately.

Yet the team set a recordfor wins in a season with 11 last year (those early teams played less than 10 games a season). Still, the Terrors were swept by Middle Atlantic Conference Southwest leaders Franklin & Marshall (one was a 5-4 game) and Dickinson, and Dix said those are the teams to beat.

But he said his Terrors could be in the thick of the race, especially with the addition of three freshmen "impact players." One is pitcher Marilyn Naas, one of the top players in Montgomery County last year, who will split mound duties with sophomore April Omert.

The big problem for the Terrors is a brutal early-season schedule that includesthe eight-team Eastern Mennonite Tournament in Virginia (at least three games in two days, some against NCAA Division II schools), a gameagainst always strong Elizabethtown (Pa.) College and an all-important MAC doubleheader with F & M, all within eight days.

"That will probably set the tone for the season," Dix said.

CARROLL CHRISTIAN PATRIOTS

The Patriots return seven players from last year's 5-7 team, which lost in the first round of the Valley Christian Conference tournament. Now, with a new coach -- Judy Meid -- and in a renamed conference (Mason-Dixon Christian Conference), the team looks to top the .500 mark.

The big question is pitching. Stephanie Palmisano, lastyear's starter, has graduated. Junior Aimee Dillon, on the team as afreshman two years ago, likely will share mound duties with classmate Cinda Groves.

Kim Wadel and Angie Anderson, two standout all-around athletes for Carroll Christian, should help the squad.

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