Ironically, Howard High softball coach Dave Vezzi recalls the beginning of the Lions' season as a period that convinced him the Lions hadthe stuff to be county champions.

Trouble was, Howard was off to a 3-4 start and had dropped two of its first three county games. Senior pitcher Andrea Nolan was struggling with a throat virus. Krista Fulton was still trying to find her swing after missing last season with a neck injury. And Howard's roster was loaded with underclassmen.

"The first two or three games, I didn't know about the season," recalled Vezzi, the Howard County Sun's Coach of the Year. "But after we started 1-2 in the county with two tough losses but were playing well, the kids knew we were as good as any team in the county."

TheLions proved themselves correct.

Quietly, Howard began putting together a winning streak. First, the team knocked off then-undefeated Mount Hebron, 6-2. Two games later, the Lions knocked Hammond out of first place with a resounding 11-4 victory. Their next victim was Glenelg, which also fell out of first place after Howard's 8-5 victory.

Not even a heartbreaking, 6-5, extra-inning defeat at Centennial could throw the Lions off course. They regrouped and won their last four league games, the last two by shutout over Oakland Mills and Hammond.

Suddenly, lightly regarded Howard was camped alongside Centennial at the top of the standings with an 11-3 record.

Several things happened to produce Vezzi's first county championship in his fifth season at Howard.

First, Nolan returned to health after the season's first two weeks.

Second, Fulton (.362, 12 extra-base hits) found her swing and gave the Lions a tremendous defensive boost at third base, where Vezzi moved her after four games.

Third, Howard's younger players responded to the careful handling of Vezzi, who elected to play them last year to give them seasoning. Sophomores Patty Millerand Kerri Semmont solidified the right side of the infield this year, while freshman left-fielder Emily Moore, sophomore center-fielder Sharon Ford and sophomore right-fielder Tarah Principato did the same to the outfield. Sophomore Terri Townsley also turned into a fine catcher.

The Lions finished with a 13-6 record, and were eliminated by eventual 3A champion North Carroll in the Region I semifinals.

Howard returns a strong nucleus next year, but the Lions will have to replace two critical positions, as Nolan and shortstop Holly Stover have graduated. Judging by his track record, Vezzi will find a way.

"I don't know how he (Vezzi) does it, but every year he does it," said Hammond coach Dave Guetler. "He gets more out of his team than anyone."

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