Does the Chesapeake softball team return many players from last season's 4A state champion?

Coach Dennis Thiele answers, "Considering I had a small team, I would say eight starters would be a lot."

His words are enough to make rival coaches cringe.

So does hislineup, which includes pitcher-outfielder Amy Jakubowski (10-2, 0.56ERA, .446 batting average) and catcher Stacey Grokas (.388).

Stacey Matcuk (9-0, .323) adds depth to the pitching staff, as does Becky Thiele, who hit over .400 last year as one of the county's premier second basemen.

The 4A League has undergone a structural change, with the 10-team field broken down into two divisions. Arundel, Glen Burnie, Meade, North County and Old Mill make up the Friendship, while Annapolis, Broadneck, Chesapeake, Severna Park and Queen Anne's form the Bay.

While Chesapeake remains the prohibitive favorite to clinch the top seeding in the regional playoffs, filling the three remaining spots isn't as simple -- especially when LaPlata of Charles County is expected to qualify despite its lesser talent.

"I think you've got to put Chesapeake right there on top again. They didn't lose much of anything," Severna Park coach Paul Yannuzzi said. "North County's going to be really tough, and of course, so will Old Mill and Glen Burnie.

"Unfortunately, LaPlata's still in our region, so they'll steal one, and that means only three of the five of us can go. Heck,they won't play anybody. They won't even return my phone calls."

Glen Burnie coach Bob Broccolino said, "Arundel is going to be a very difficult team to beat. They won't be rolling over for anybody.

"There are probably six teams fighting for, realistically, three positions, or maybe two because of LaPlata."

Broadneck coach Don Leonard adds another contender to the growing list.

"Look for Severna Park to be the sleeper. I think a lot of people are looking past them, and they certainly have a nice ballclub," he said.

As usual, the county is rich in pitching -- especially in the 4A League, where Jakubowski, Matcuk, North County's Karen Hay and Glen Burnie's Mandy Albrecht reside.

After winning 16 games and a Class 1A state championship at Brooklyn Park, North County's Karen Hay (1.41 ERA) joins the elite hurlers in the 4A League.

Hay is one of seven starters from last year's Brooklyn Park team now playing for the Knights. Kristie Rhinehart, former No. 1 pitcher at Andover, joins the staff.

"I thinkthe team has accepted the challenge very well," North County coach Sue Fitchett said. "I'm trying not to be worried about any of the other teams. I've got to worry about my own."

Fitchett will look to sluggers Lisa Garrison, Tina Armstrong and Krissie Barton -- each of whom is hitting above .400 -- to handle the bulk of the batting chores. But the Knights have great hitting throughout their lineup.

Albrecht hopes to lead Glen Burnie to its third state championship since 1986, when the Gophers began a string of five consecutive Anne Arundelteams winning the 4A crown.

The senior right-hander batted .383 and was 5-3 with a 0.91 ERA last season, losing to Chesapeake twice and Old Mill once. Her backup, third baseman Melanie Scharf, was 6-1 with a 1.36 ERA.

Glen Burnie has its leading hitter back from last season in All-County second baseman Michelle Ackerman (.388), but Jennifer Schmittle transferred to Old Mill, taking with her the Gophers' only two home runs last year. She also had four doubles, three triples, 15 RBI and a .500 slugging percentage.

The Gophers' outfield includes center fielder Erin Sutton, who batted .383 as a sophomore andled all county public-school teams with 24 steals.

At Severna Park, the talk is of future pitching greatness.

Freshmen windmillers Jen Spampinato and Jen Conner have grabbed the attention of many rival coaches -- to the dismay of Yannuzzi.

"I wanted to keep them a secret," he said, laughing.

"It's so much to ask freshman pitchers to do, but if they can throw strikes, we'll be in all the ballgames.

"When they're juniors, they're going to wind up throwing harder than anybody I've ever had. But I don't know what's going to happen between now and then, and I don't want to put a lot of pressure on them."

Spampinato, 14, was in control throughout her debut Thursday, hurling five innings of one-hit ball in the Falcons' 26-2 rout of PerryHall.

Yannuzzi's enthusiasm stretches behind the mound, where All-County shortstop Shani Cannon returns. Now the lone senior on the team, Cannon batted .440 last season and committed only four errors.

Old Mill received a blow when junior pitcher-infielder Jen Bostak underwent surgery for torn ligaments in her right knee. She isn't expected back until May at the earliest.

With second-team All-County pitcher Michelle Moodispaw having graduated, the Patriots will rely heavily on Schmittle and sophomore Karen Jacobson.

Jacobson is up from junior varsity, where she walked only seven batters last season.

"All the kids have been contributing and playing well, but it's going to take some seasoning before some of the sophomores come around," third-year coach Debbie Shacklock said.

"We outscored our opponents, 197-42, last year, and I certainly would like to see us do that again. I work with them to be aggressive hitters and heads-up base runners. With the quality of pitchers we face, aggressive base running can be the difference between winning and losing."

Credit Broadneck's Leonard for being a realist.

"I'm not in the upper echelon, as areal contender," he said. "I'm closer to the Arundels and the Meadesthan I am to the North Countys and the Chesapeakes, which are definitely your strong teams."

Among the returnees is senior first baseman Stephanie Pochet, a third-team All-County selection who led Broadneck with a .347 average and turned in one of the finest performances in the county when she went 7-for-7 against Southern.

Arundel started its season on a positive note Monday, downing host Queen Anne's, 6-3. However, tougher times await the Wildcats -- they will have to face Friendship Division rivals Glen Burnie, Old Mill and North Countytwice.

Multitalented athletes Michelle Harrison (junior shortstop) and Kendra Cameron (senior first baseman) will lead the Wildcats offensively, while Traci Koenig will be the starter on the mound.

Meade is counting on a solid infield core of Jen Tomlinson, Adrian Toles, Sherri Walker and Heather Pandullo to keep it out of the Friendship Division cellar. Offense and pitching are head coach Sam Pandullo'smain concerns.

Second-year head coach Gloria Day hopes first-yearwindmillers Jennifer Mauch (a junior) and Jennifer Enriquez (a sophomore) can lead Annapolis to its first win in five years.

3A-2A League

Northeast, the county's other returning state champion, pins much -- but not all -- of its hopes on pitcher Kristie Zulka, the AnneArundel County Sun 1990 Player of the Year.

Zulka, who registereda paltry 0.22 ERA last year, is coming off a 17-0 season, with 177 strikeouts and 11 shutouts. She did not commit an error in 70 attemptsand batted in 16 runs on 26 hits for a .347 average.

Joining the talented right-hander are shortstop Stephanie Lazor (.385, 18 RBI), catcher Kelly Tibbs (.319, 13 RBI) and first baseman Melissa Scarborough (.310, 15 RBI), each of whom posted a fielding average above .900 last year.

The Eagles entered the season with a 56-game winning streak, the fifth longest in the nation.

South River and Southern are entering their seasons with new coaches. Bruce Pyle takes over the Seahawks, and Marti Woodfield leads a youthful Bulldogs squad.

Southern's junior hurler Jennifer Bush already has picked up the first of what she hopes will be several victories, 9-8, over Howard County'sAtholton.

South River returns five seniors but only one starter in co-captain Khristie Dunbar.

Private schools

Archbishop Spalding, the only county private school with a varsity softball team, boasts junior windmiller Kim Sheridan.

It doesn't get much better thanthat.

Sheridan struck out 190 batters last year while going 15-3 and compiling a microscopic 0.56 ERA.

She passed her first test against county competition Monday when she fanned 12 en route to a 2-0 win over North County. She already had thrown a perfect game in the Cavaliers' season-opening 11-0 victory over Seton Keough on March 19.

"Kim is a competitor," said first-year coach Jim Nemeth. "What makes her so good is the fact that she wants to get better.

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