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No girls squad from Howard County has ever won a title in the U.S. Youth Soccer Association Regional Tournament.

That fact will be on the minds of three local State Cup champion girls teams when the four-day event begins Thursday at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

All three hope to return with a title: the five-time State Cup titlist under-19 Columbia Crusaders, the three-time state champion under-15 Columbia Chargers and the under-13 Columbia Spirit, a two-time state champ.

Two boys State Cup champions, the under-16 Columbia Crew and the under-13 Columbia Hornets, also will vie for titles.

The region is made up of teams from more than a dozen East Coast states. The regional tournament format divides 16 teams into four separate brackets of four teams each.

"Our girls are very aware of what's at stake and they want to come back with a title," said Chargers assistant coach Kevin Flynn, whose team returns 12 players from last year's semifinalists, including nine who are in the state's Olympic Developmental Program.

"We lost, 2-0, last year to a team we had beaten before. I'd say we have a really good shot of doing it, and I think the experience we have this year will be a big help. We heard that theCrusaders have a pretty tough draw."

They do.

Just ask Coach Anita Andersch about the Crusaders' first-round opponent, Vista United, which dethroned the defending national champion Fairfax Express as this year's Virginia State Cup champion.

"We've got a talented team, but this is the toughest draw that we've ever had. We're going to have to play excellent soccer -- not just good soccer," said Andersch, who along with her husband, Roy, coached the Crusaders to a pair ofunder-17 runner-up finishes to Willingboro, N.J., the past two seasons.

Countians Samantha Andersch, Jackie Reischick, Vicky Brunt andgoalkeeper Krista Fulton lead what is perhaps the state's most talent-laden club team -- girls or boys.

The team, which includes top-notch players from Harford and Anne Arundel counties, is making its first appearance at the under-19 level. Willingboro, last year's national champion, remained at under-17.

Said Anita Andersch: "We've handily beaten our opponents in the past two years, but this time we're hitting the tournament's odds-on favorite in the first round."

Coach John Bagrosky says his Spirit has a tough draw too, but the girls are itching to put their 13-game winning streak on the line.

"I'vebeen involved in coaching for 18 years, and this is the hardest-working group I've ever been associated with," said Bagrosky, whose 17-member squad boasts 14 players in the Olympic Developmental Program.

"Last year, we entered the tournament with low expectations and surpassed them. We're a much better team this year, but we've also got a tougher draw. We're going to have our hands full."

Grouped with the Spirit are formidable teams from Connecticut and Maine as well as the defending regional champion, from Virginia. Bagrosky says his Spirit has been placed in the group likely to yield the champion.

He recalls the circumstances that kept his contingent last year from reaching the semifinals.

"We had a 2-0-1 record in our grouping and were within a goal of making it. But there was a one-goal differential that allowed another team from our group to go," said Bagrosky, whoseteam returns all but five members.

The Spirit is loaded with Olympic Developmental Program players.

Under-13 state members include strikers Jackie Jamaris, Tania Riismandel and Michelle Clare, midfielders Shannon Otto and Lisa Spilka, defenders Allison Whitt, Maryanna Cincotta and Julie Kickham and goalie Mandy Robins.

Members of theunder-12 squad are striker Stephanie Hiteshew, midfielder Becky Bayes and goalie Rima Sidhu.

The nine Chargers in the ODP are defenders Carrie Chau, Carrie Brelsford, Kacy Williams and Christina Flowers;midfielders Renny Trellis, Stephanie Van Deusen and Nat Frohman; andstrikers Shara Boonshaft and Tricia Witte.

Coached by Leo Weil, the Chargers are grouped with teams from New Hampshire, Connecticut and Virginia.

The Hornets return "just about the whole team," Coach Ron Lee says, and six ODP players from a squad that dropped a one-goal loss in the first round last year.

Strikers Teddy Zingman, Zuri Barnes and Brian West, midfielder A. J. Lee, stopper Bobby Landolt and goalie Luke Timmons are among the players charged up for the Hornets' return trip.

"They're ready for the tournament this year. In fact, they're hoping to get to the semifinals and to meet a team from Richmond. We're 2-2 against that team," Lee said. "But I'm trying to keep them from looking past any teams. I keep telling them we've got to get past the first three teams first."

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