The reports of Mount Hebron's decline in boys lacrosse have been greatly exaggerated.
Sure, the Vikings lost seven All-County players to graduation. And the Vikings come into the season with a lot of question marks. But after getting off to an impressive 2-1 start, make no mistake about it: Hebron is still the team to beat. Coach Warren Michael stands a good chance of going through his fourth straight season undefeated against the county.
"He (Michael) does a nice job with the talent he has," said Howard coach Dan Ross, whose Lions should give the Vikings a good run for the county title. "They're a well-disciplined, well-coached team."
If Hebron does repeat as county champs, the team will probably againbe chased closely by Howard and possibly by Hammond. Howard has a strong team laden with senior leadership, while Hammond has the talent to erase last year's disappointing 2-5 county record.
And Howard and Hammond couldn't ask for better cooperation from the schedule. Hebron travels to Hammond in nine days to open the league schedule, theninvades Howard on April 19. The county title could be decided that week. The Golden Bears and Lions must be glad they're getting Hebron early, while the Vikings are still working out their kinks.
The rest of the county shapes up as second fiddle to the big boys. Centennial and Oakland Mills suffered some key losses to graduation and don't appear to have filled the positions with the same talent or experience. Wilde Lake looks similar to last year's competitive but losing team, and Atholton and Glenelg are trying to rebound from seasons in thecellar. Last year's doormats could be this year's surprises.
Hereis a closer look at the county teams:
Until last week, Wendell Thomas had every reason to approach his 13th season at Atholton with shaky expectations. The Raiders return seven starters from last year's team, but Atholton slumped to a 1-13 record with that team,including 0-7 against the county.
Thomas' expectations may have soared Tuesday, after the Raiders shocked 16th-ranked South Carroll with a 7-6 victory in Atholton's first win of the year.
"We played our best game in three years. This is the best thing that could have happened to us," Thomas said. "Coming off a season like last year, then starting 0-2, you don't know if that next win is ever going to come. It's nice to know we can play a strong team and beat them. We've got confidence now."
The Raiders also have some good players, beginning with 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior attackman John Milstead. He was Atholton's brightest spot last year, when he racked up 42 goals. He'llbe counted on to spark the offense again. Milstead wasn't even available for the South Carroll game.
He won't have to shoulder too much of the offensive load, though. Returning junior attackman Alex Flecker and newcoming junior attackmen Jimmy Smith and Brian Pertman should supply scoring help. Pertman has scored in each of the Raiders first three games. Smith's goal won the South Carroll game with 40 seconds remaining.
Atholton also looks solid at midfield, although its depth is questionable. Junior returnee Norman Flecker and senior returnees Kevin Huber, Marty Rodden and John Holmes -- the last, a 6-foot, 190-pound converted defenseman -- give Thomas the pieces to form a good first unit.
The Raiders' biggest question mark is defense. Senior Andy Blanco returns to start, but he'll be assisted by two newcoming sophomores -- Josh Harrold and David Koch -- and senior Greg O'Shea, a transfer from South Carolina and an excellent athlete. Junior goalie Andy Schlossberg is also back. He was a hero in Atholton's upset of South Carroll, with a career-high 20 saves.
"I can't even project what we'll do, because of the big changes I've seen after a fewgames," Thomas said. "I'm hoping for a .500 season. If we play with the intensity we showed against South Carroll, we could go places."
The Eagles have relied on a strong defense while gettingby with a weak attack for the last few years under 14-year coach Mike Siegert. This year's team has the same look.
All-County midfielder Jamie Flynn graduated, taking one-third (37 goals, 11 assists) of the offense with him. Attackman Jeff Zawacki, the team's second-leading scorer, also has graduated.
That leaves senior crease attackmanJeff Freimanis, one of only four returning starters -- and the Eagles' third-leading scorer last year -- to pick up where Flynn left off.The rest of the starting attack, junior newcomers H.J. Holt and BillAlborn, is unproven.
Centennial's strong suit should be at midfield, where junior Cullen Meade and sophomore Werner Krueger return to start. Both have above-average skills, and Meade is the team's fastest middie. Junior newcomer Danny Ahn will start at the other midfield spot.
Siegert thinks the defense will be strong again, although with All-County defenseman Scott Shinkskie and All-County goalie Todd Weitzel gone, the Eagles probably will suffer some lapses. They'll need an excellent season from senior Ken Feher, a 6-2, 200-pound returning starter who should be up to the task. He'll put a few attackers onthe ground this year.
Senior returnee Dave Wiebking moves into a starting role; the other starting defense spot belongs to junior AndyArmiger. The Eagles' inexperience could show on the second midfield and long-stick defensive units. Centennial is off to a 0-1 start.
"We've looked great in practice, but we've stunk up the place in our only scrimmage and only game we've played," Siegert said. "We've got to work on everything. The problem spots are correctable. Whether we correct them is another story."
Third-year coach Rick Kincaid thinks the Gladiators may be ready to turn a corner after sputtering to a 3-9 record and winning just one county game last year.
"We're looking for a much-improved season," Kincaid said. "This is the best team I've had at Glenelg."
One reason for Kincaid's optimism is the Gladiators' 2-0 start, easily the best in his three years. Andone reason for the 2-0 start is Glenelg's trio of returning attackmen -- senior Nevin Hilliard and juniors Dusty Huesser and Kevin Lafferty -- who led a 20-goal barrage in the first two games.
Glenelg also returns two solid midfield starters in senior Jason Pett and junior John Schulze, and two defensemen in seniors Tim Clark and Jackson Fisher. Pett was the team's leading scorer last year with 15 goals and11 assists.
For all their improvement in attack, the Gladiators still lack depth and experience on defense and at midfield. Sophomore middies Matt DeMontigne and Jason Coulder and junior Greg Flurry are moving up to start from last year's junior varsity team, which went 6-1 against the county. Flurry stopped 75 percent of the opposition's shots last year.
"We're building. The JV program is doing well," Kincaid said. "We should be better in the ground ball department, we should play better position defense. Our ball movement is better, and we've got better speed on defense. I have to be guarded at this point, but I'm optimistic."
The Bears have created more excitement at Hammond than any team in recent memory. They are returning 10 starters from last year's 5-7 team and are blessed with one of the county's more dynamic players in senior midfielder Ricky Matthews, who is Player-of-the-Year material. He scored 50 points last year, snared66 percent of his faceoffs, and showed up in great condition with a shot registering in the 90 mph range.
"He's already done much better this year. He's a more well-rounded player," said seven-year coachBill Smith. "If he gets in the open and cranks it up, he's very difficult to stop. He's had shots this year when the goalie never moved."
Matthews should get plenty of help from the attack of junior Keith Chance, sophomore Tommy Lea and senior Jason Orr. Chance scored sixgoals in a 13-1 victory over Aberdeen. Lea scored four in an 11-9 victory over Fallston. Converted senior attackman Chris Mack moves to one midfield spot, while senior Drew Farver -- who has been bothered by recent back spasms -- starts at the other middie position.
"I'dput our offense against anybody. I have four go-to guys. If I need to set up a play, I don't automatically have to go to Ricky," Smith said. "But our defense has to play better for us to contend."
Seniordefenseman Toby Babst, a strong 5-11, 190-pounder, is the key to Hammond's defense, along with returning senior goalie Matt Gardnek. Senior Alex Kovalski and junior Brian Leyda round out the starting defense.
"If we get sound goal-tending all year, combined with our offense, we'll be tough," Smith said. "If we don't play good defense, we'll be in the middle of the pack."
The Lions, who have chasedHebron futilely for the past few seasons, are on the Vikings' tails again -- this time, with one of the better teams coach Dan Ross has had in his 17 years.
"I'm not going to get into a situation like this again for a while, having all these seniors," Ross said. "We've got enough talent to do very well. If we don't, it's probably my fault for not getting through to them."
Seven returning senior starters form the heart of the team, beginning with defenseman and reigning Player of the Year Joe Wilson, who is headed for the University of Virginia on a full scholarship. In a one-on-one situation, Wilson can shut down anyone in the league. The Lions will hurt many opponents in transitions started by his steals.
Then there's returning senior Reggie Gaither, who might be the most improved player in the county. Senior David Haskell and senior goalie Milton Lee round out a good starting unit. Lee came off the bench in last year's playoffs against Dulaney and surrendered just two goals in the second half of a 9-7 loss. He had 16 saves in a 9-3 victory over Seneca Valley last month.
"Ithink I've got two of the better defensemen in the area (Wilson and Gaither)," Ross said. "Our strength is our defense. Milton needs moreexperience, but he's got the confidence."
Offensively, the Lions have disappointed Ross early with a lack of explosiveness, but the returning senior duo of Scott Frye and Mike McCarthy produced 78 goals last year, when Frye was All-County. McCarthy has scored in 19 straight games going back to last season.
The Lions need to answer most of the question at the all-important midfield positions. Senior Lamont Anderson was All-County last year; his quick face-off skills demoralize opponents. Howard needs more consistency from him this spring, while seniors Neal Jacobs and Rick Platter should improve.
Another issue is Howard's depth at midfield and defense. All the questions should be answered April 19, when Howard plays host to Mount Hebron in the game that should decide the league title.
Hebron is the only program in the county that could lose seven All-County players to graduation, yet still return as the team to beat. The Vikings have proved their mettle by beating Mount St. Joe, 6-5, and North Harford, 8-5. North Harford knocked Hebron out of last year's playoffs.
The Vikings, who have gone 21-0 in the county under fourth-year coach Warren Michael, could rip off another seven-game winning streakagainst the league this year. Why? They've got the strongest starting midfield in the county in seniors Bob Sites and Mike McQuaid and junior Jason Vettori, Hebron's lone returning starters.
Vettori is an outstanding faceoff man and all-around player, Sites is shooting 76percent through three games, and McQuaid is a superb dodger with a hard shot.
"It's as good a midfield as I've ever had. They could play with anybody. In fact, our first 13 guys stack up with anybody," said Michael. "The first week of practice, when I was trying to evaluate, I was blowing the whistle every 10 seconds. Things started falling in line a little bit after that. We're playing surprisingly well now."
The Vikings may not be as strong defensively as last year, butthey are deep and talented. Seniors Nathan Kealey and Henry Long andjunior Andrew Pillinger will start, while Frank Rabena and Rob Doeller give Hebron a strong big-stick unit. Senior goalie Tommy Dotsikas,last year's backup, is this year's key. He'll be pushed by junior Chris Parandian, a transfer from Loyola.
Hebron also won't be as strong on attack, but seniors Chris Visser and Jess Grim and junior Tom Huppman will start, while sophomore newcomers Justin Gimmell and Andrew Ballinger will play. Count on them to pass well, run set plays, and play with the smarts and patience of a typical Hebron group.
"Wedon't have a lot of speed, but we have the wheels in the right places," Michael said. "We'll be more of a finesse team than in the past. The game is won in the middle of the field with good decision-making.We're making the right decisions."
The good news isthat attackman Steve Phipps has returned to Oakland Mills, where he led the Baltimore metro area in scoring as a sophomore before transferring to Arundel High School last year.
The bad news is that Phipps fractured his hand in the season-opening 8-6 victory over Bel Air. And Phipps is a standout on an inexperienced team that features threeseniors playing the game for the first time.
"I'm teaching fundamentals again. We're starting from scratch," said Oakland Mills' ninth-year coach, Gary Ahrens. "We're looking weak. We're not executing the way we should be. The jury is still out on us."
The Scorpions return just three starters from last year's 7-5 team in seniors Grant Bleiler (attack), Scott Nelson (midfield) and James Stephenson (goalie).
After that, they'll depend on senior newcomers Paul Tribles -- a transfer from New York -- and Garrett Jones to help on defense, and sophomore newcomer Shannon Hiteshew at midfield. Other returnees include senior attackman Chris Brosnan and junior defenseman Matt Hanagan, neither of whom played much last year.
"I see improvement. If we don't get it, it's going to be a long season," Ahrens said. "We'lleither be where we usually are or we'll be at the bottom of the pack."
Phipps, who came off the bench with a broken hand to score three goals in a 10-4 loss to South Carroll, can't do it alone.
Third-year coach Mike Harrison is back with a team similar to last year's -- short on talent, depth, experience, long on toughness, and blessed with a tireless midfielder.
This year's special middie is senior Keith Gonsouland, the lone returning starter who will carrythe Wildecats as far as he can take them. He had nine goals and six assists, and has been the highlight of Wilde Lake's rough 0-4 start.
"He's (Gonsouland) going to be a fine one," Harrison said. "We have a real lack of senior leadership. There's Keith, and then it drops through the floor."
The Wildecats are least-experienced on attack,where they will start three newcomers in juniors Mike Curtis and Jake Laaveg and freshman John Scherr. Gonsouland will get some help at midfield from senior Teague Buchanan and sophomore Jon Taylor, who hasa hard shot. But neither Buchanan nor Taylor played much last year.
And on defense, senior Andrew Commins is the lone returnee. JuniorZak Young and sophomore Tony Crawford are newcomers, as is junior goalie Jared Taylor.
"I'd like to say we can win three games in the county," Harrison said. "The kids are not used to winning, and that'sa real problem. I think we can give people a run for the middle money, but we're not going to get close to the top."