"In the 4A league, there's never an easy game," says Broadneck baseball coach Mark Stover.

"There's nobody you can take a day off against, using your fifth-string pitcher."

Teams must be at full strength this spring when facing Old Mill and Arundel, widely regarded as the two best entries in the league andstate-championship caliber.

The Patriots lost to High Point in last year's state semifinals, after winning the title the previous season.

"I think you have to put Old Mill as the favorite simply because of what they have done over the past few years and what they've got back," Stover said.

"They've got quality pitching back. They've got the kid (shortstop Eric) Scott who's probably as good an infielder as there is in the county. All over, they have a good ballclub. They're going to be tough to beat."

So are the Patriots, who began the season ranked 19th nationally in a USA Today poll, really untouchable?

Glen Burnie coach Bruce Sider has another theory.

"I think Arundel is going to be the toughest team," he said. "They had a lot of young players last year and did real well. I look for them to be the team that will lead the pack. Old Mill will be right there with them, but I give the edge to Arundel right now."

The Wildcats return 13 players from last year's region finalist, including outfielder Rodney Stevens (22 stolen bases, 25 runs scored), shortstop Scott Young (.359) and pitcher-third baseman Shawn Crews (.304, 19 RBI).

Crewswon three of four decisions on the mound last season.

Coach Bernie Walter knows his Wildcats are among the hunted once again.

"We've been one of the front-running teams for about 16 years now. We've been the team to beat year in and year out, and I think my players expect a challenge (from the rest of the county), and they welcome it," he said.

Walter also expects Old Mill to pose the greatest threat to the Wildcats' state championship hopes.

The Patriots lost some thunderous bats to graduation, but a pitching staff that accounted for 19 wins remains intact.

Senior southpaw Doug Stockman (9-2) anchors the staff, but another senior lefty, Jim Simms (3-1, .375 battingaverage), is a quality substitute.

So is right-hander Eric Scott (4-1), who batted .429 with three home runs and 33 RBI last season.

John Bussey moves from second base to catcher, replacing Kenny Rogers. Last season, Bussey posted a .376 average with three homers and 20 RBI.

Need more? How about center fielder William Beverly, who batted .367 with 21 RBI and 15 stolen bases last spring?

Joining Old Mill and Arundel in the Friendship Division are Glen Burnie, Meade and North County. The Bay Division contains Annapolis, Broadneck, Chesapeake, Severna Park and Queen Anne's.

A pair of one-run defeats has Broadneck off to an 0-2 start. But Stover isn't worried.

"We've left too many men on base. We haven't gotten the big hit at the timewe needed it. We very easily could be 2-0," he said.

The Bruins missed qualifying for the playoffs by one game last season, and the likes of senior pitcher-second baseman Johnny Williams (.354) and senior third baseman Brad Reinhart (.297, three home runs) hope to take them a step further.

Severna Park coach Jim Pitt likens his job to "coaching five guards in basketball."

"We just don't have that big guy," he said.

What the Falcons lack in power, they more than makeup for in speed.

Junior right fielder J. J. Novak had 23 steals in 24 attempts last season, and is 5-for-5 thus far. "He's the fastestplayer I've ever coached," Pitt said.

Joining Novak in the outfield is senior Mark Budzinski (.486) and junior Steve Neuberger (.526).

Among the newcomers worth watching is junior first baseman Wally Pisarski, who has won a starting job and could prove to be one of theFalcons' few power hitters.

Chesapeake hopes to return to the region playoffs, where the Cougars fell to Old Mill in the first round last year.

Getting back won't be easy.

Coach Bob Dill lost most of his offense to graduation, but he's confident his pitching will make Chesapeake a contender for one of the four coveted postseason slots.

Dill is looking to seniors Derek Hasselhoff -- a third-team All-County selection who batted .455 last season -- and Sean Sesney to handle the bulk of the pitching chores and to lead the Cougars offensively.

North County coach Don Usewick -- formerly of Andover -- believes his first-year Knights will have an immediate impact on the 4A League.

"We're coming together as a team fairly well. A lot of theplayers have played together in summer and fall ball, so it (the merging of Andover and Brooklyn Park) has not been a big adjustment for them," he said.

Offensively, the Knights boast senior second baseman Will Scott, who batted .360 for Brooklyn Park last year and led the Bees in virtually every offensive category.

"Will Scott is our No. 1 man," said Usewick. "He's a good leadoff man. He's got a good eye and he'll take extra bases. Plus, he's one of the top defensive guys in the county. There's no one in the county better than him at second base."

Glen Burnie won 11 games last season, then lost 11 seniors to graduation, including catcher Chris Beatty (.464).

So beginsthe task of rebuilding the Gophers.

"We lost 11 players, but our program is at the point now where we have guys from the JV who have played for two years and are ready to step in as juniors," Sider said.

It's a senior, right-handed pitcher Brian Nevin, who will be counted on heavily this spring. He was 5-2 as a sophomore before slipping to 2-4 last season.

The offense -- or lack thereof -- is Sider'sgreatest concern. The leading returning hitter is senior Lee Kinzler, who only batted .231.

Meanwhile, Coach Elliot Harvey's Meade Mustangs are considered by several 4A coaches a possible surprise team in the league.

Harvey expects the Mustangs at least to break even this year, provided they can reduce the number of errors.

The list of returnees is headed by third-team All-County outfielder David Beck(.438).

Veteran Annapolis skipper Larry Brogden is enthusiastic about new-found talents like seniors Sean Tipton (pitcher) and Kurt Wahlstrom (infielder) and junior Caron Johnson (utility player).

"Not only does Sean throw well, but he hits well and can also play the outfield if need be," he said. "I'm also expecting big things from Caron and Kurt, as well. Both of them have impressed the coaching staff with their overall skills. They might be able to help us this year."

3A-2A League

Barring a minor sports miracle, the Northeast Eagles -- last year's county 3A-2A-1A champions -- will reign over South River and Southern in the 3A-2A League.

The Eagles return seven starters from last year's 22-1 state semifinalist, including senior aceCharlie Buckheit (11-1, 1.38 ERA). The right-hander walked 14 and fanned 72 in 81 innings of work.

Buckheit is backed by center fielder Craig Everett (.320, 20 RBI), who was 4-0 as a spot-starter a year ago. Everett, third baseman Don Shump (.459, 36 RBI), right fielder Shawn Royston (.333, 20 RBI) and first baseman Russ Curry (.329, 21 RBI), form an imposing lineup.

The infield defense may be the only question mark for the Eagles, as Coach Harry Lentz tries to replace shortstop Andy Srebroski (.553) -- the Anne Arundel County Sun's Playerof the Year -- and second baseman Earl Connell (.403) with a pair ofjuniors up from the 15-3 junior varsity squad.

Shortstop Joe Hoyer and second baseman K. C. Murphy will be hard-pressed to fill those roles for a team that posted a .929 fielding average.

"Those two kids are really going to have to pull through," said Lentz, in his 24th season. "A lot of what we do depends on how they improve and how our second and third pitchers hold up."

Up is where first-year Southern coach Chuck Crandell wants to take the Bulldogs after years of frustration against county baseball powers.

The Bulldogs have three standout players in tri-captains Andrew Dawson, a junior outfielder, and sophomores Billy McGee (third base-second base) and Chris Inzor (catcher). First baseman Kirt Rogers hit a home run in a loss against Wilde Lake and Jemal Wallace is improving on the mound.

Crandell is hoping that a turnout of 40 kids -- including 14 players on the varsity squad -- has helped to lay the foundation.

"We were ahead in both of the games that we lost," said Crandell, whose squad also dropped a decision to Atholton. "I'm sure we're going to have some other close games this year, and if our experience won't hurt us, we could pull them off."

South River, no doubt, is one of the county squadsthe Bulldogs are looking to beat.

The Seahawks, however, return seven starters, and Coach Ken Dunn expects to field a well-balanced squad that should improve on last year's 5-15 season.

"We don't haveany power hitters, but we're making good contact and we don't have any outstanding pitching, so they'll have to spot the ball," said Dunn, in his 14th year. "We have some good experience on the team, and we're hoping to get a few more victories. The kids are confident that they can do that."

Private School

Archbishop Spalding "first-week" coach Tom Lind is getting down to the basics with his young Cavaliers.

The newly appointed coach hopes to learn all their names sometime soon.

Lind, who took over the Cavaliers at the beginning of the week when first-year coach Steve Miller resigned because of a conflict in his work schedule, has been around the Maryland Scholastic Association A Conference long enough to know that a team will only go as far as its pitching will take it.

For Spalding, that's barely astone's throw.

"We just don't have enough pitchers," Lind said. "I'm not going to leave a young guy on the mound too long and watch him hurt his arm. We just may have to forfeit some games."

Junior Pat Calabrese and sophomore Jeff Paxton return to the hill for the Cavaliers, while Charlie Becker, last year's Anne Arundel County Sun Private School Player of the Year, is back behind the plate.

Becker batted .365 last season while providing valuable leadership.

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