Broadneck boys soccer coach Kevin McMullen says the road to the regional championship goes through Severna Park.
Most county teams won't even find the entrance ramp. Others will suffer breakdowns along the way.
All, however, are eager to begin the trek.
The 12 public schools and Queen Anne's of the Eastern Shore have joined together to formthe newly designed 4A League, which is split into two divisions.
The six largest schools -- Annapolis, Chesapeake, Glen Burnie, Meade,Old Mill and Severna Park -- make up the Friendship Division. The remaining seven -- Arundel, Broadneck, North County, Northeast, Southern, South River and Queen Anne's -- form the Bay Division.
"The county is so even from top to bottom, I don't think anyone can pick a favorite right now," Glen Burnie coach Jon Van Orden said.
"I think you could rate about five or six teams even, and whoever keeps injuries down and gels and has things break their way early will step in front."
Chesapeake coach Earl Eckhardt simply said, "The conference is brutal."
Even more brutal is the Maryland Scholastic Association A Conference, with local private schools Archbishop Spalding, St. Mary's and Severn.
The following is a closer look at the county boys soccer teams:
McMullen may speak highly of Severna Park, but his Broadneck team had tongues wagging last fall after reaching the 4A state final.
The Bruins fell to powerful Bowie, 2-1, in overtime, but the season already had been deemed a rousing success.
Now comes the hard part.
"We lost nine players from the state game," McMullen said, mulling a list that includes the school's all-time leading scorer, forward Rich Aftoora (31 goals, 13 assists in career), goalie Sean Tettemer and sweeper Jarett Smith, the Anne ArundelCounty Sun's Player of the Year.
But wait, there's hope after all, and more than just a glimmer.
"We're in a very unusual situation," McMullen continued. "We'll be starting 10 seniors. Three were starters last season, and the others got a lot of playing time. It's not like they're rookies."
The returning starters are striker Matt Weimer (nine goals, six assists), center-halfback Jeff Vincent and sweeper Dave Apple, a converted fullback.
Tettemer is replaced by senior Mike Smith. "Sean did an outstanding job, and I think Mike Smith will be able to do the same," McMullen said.
Severna Park has its own quality keeper, senior Jason Zaks, who heads an impressive list of returning Falcons, like fellow captains Jamie Cornett (midfielder-fullback) and Steve Neuberger (fullback), and leading scorer Brian Peterson (striker-midfielder).
Peterson, who has 30 goals and 12 assists in his career, and senior striker-midfielder Mike Crawford again will keep opposing defenses busy.
The Falcons were denied a shot at their third straight regional championship last year when Broadneck prevailed in a shootout, 2-1, in the semifinals. But Coach Don Gregg said his team is "more focused."
"They're on the upswing. They're starting to go in the right direction," he said.
The Falcons sent North County heading in the wrong direction last season, beating the previously undefeated Knights, 1-0, in the 12th game.
The Knights' season ended in the regional finals, when Broadneck posted a 2-1 win.
Just three players from that North County team return this year. And one of them isn't Jody Haislip, the county's leading scorer.
"We only have about six kids who have ever played in a varsity game," said Coach Steve Malone, who lost nine starters to graduation. "Thereare eight sophomores and a freshman competing for starting positions, so we could be a sophomore-dominated team."
Only senior midfielder Josh Merrill, junior striker Shawn Moyer and sophomore midfielder Chris Cosentino return, but the outlook isn't necessarily bleak.
Several underclassmen are being promoted from a junior varsity squad that went 8-3-1, and senior fullbacks John Lowden and Jeff Rattel weresometime starters last year. Keeper Jeff Boyer spent his time behindstarter Jesse Haislip.
"This team's going to have a totally different complexion," Malone said.
That could be music to the ears of South River coach Greg Carroll. Last year, his 10-4-1 Seahawks took their worst beating, 5-0, against the Knights.
Defender Chris Asher(four goals) is one of six starters and 16 returning players from that Seahawks team, which captured the Class 3A Region III crown beforebeing ousted by eventual state champion Oakland Mills in the state semifinals.
Senior keeper Kevin Collison returns after a four-shutout season, as do defenders Ryan Dunn and Andy Moede.
Old Mill coach Don Hobbs isn't worried about his defense. "The question is whetheror not we'll score goals," he said.
With prolific striker Eric Bathras gone, Hobbs is relying on a committee of players to fill the offensive void, including junior strikers Danny Knight and Nick Badalian and midfielders David Gray, Mike McNally (both seniors) and Don Yost (junior).
Another possibility is sophomore striker-midfielder Bob Thomas, who led the Patriots' junior varsity team in scoring last year.
"Opponents can't key on one player, saying, 'OK, if we stop him, we stop Old Mill,' " Hobbs said.
Senior keeper Brian Layman isexpected to stop plenty of shots, and he'll receive the necessary support from senior sweeper Brian Kelley and fullbacks Chris Steelman (senior), Scott O'Rourk and Steve Smith (both juniors).
Van Orden would like to forget most of last season, when Glen Burnie slipped to 4-8 after winning 10 games and making the regional finals the year before.
The Gophers appear on the rise with 15 returning players, including eight starters.
Senior striker-midfielder Jason Earnest isthe leading returning scorer, and senior Jason Scistman is back in goal. Senior sweeper Shannon Cavey, an honorable mention All-County performer last year, also returns.
"The kids worked hard in the off-season," Van Orden said. "They're excited, and I'm excited about the season."
Optimism abounds at Meade (7-5 the past two seasons) as well -- although lately, the Mustangs have been dealt a tricky hand.
Second-team All-County midfielder Eric Washington suffered a wrist injury in gym class Friday, keeping him out of the lineup for the first four to six weeks. Expected starters J. J. Grewe and Louis Moraleswill be academically ineligible for the first three contests. First-year coach Mike Dey hopes that seniors Bryan Mitchell (sweeper) and Rodney Rawlinson (striker) along with sophomore striker Andre Wise canpick up the slack.
Arundel coach Nick Jauschnegg (one of the county's winningest active coaches at 131-68-8) would like to see a turnaround from last year's 6-6 record.
"Last season was only the fourth time in my 14 years that we didn't qualify for the playoffs," Jauschnegg said. "I'm just hoping we can play well for at least most of the season; if we do that, winning games will take care of itself."
Senior strikers Tony Fiachetti and Craig Dorsey head the list of returnees from the 1990 squad.
Chesapeake sixth-year coach Earl Eckhardt is hoping his seven returning starters from last year's 4-7-1 teamhave matured enough to boost the Cougars into playoff contention.
With 11 players back, including four-year starters Greg Cameron (midfielder) and Dean Coccia (striker), the future has brightened.
"I'm guardedly optimistic," Eckhardt said. "We have three big games (North County, Arundel and Broadneck) to start the season, so we'll be fighting for playoff points right off the bat. If we lose, we could find ourselves in a hole in a hurry."
The Annapolis team (5-6-1) is trying to keep its head above water, having failed to make the playoffs since 1983.
The Panther halfback corps, consisting of Jesse Simmerman, Lars Schultz, Ted Bromberg and Jason Ostrum, will have the task of providing most of the scoring punch as well as aiding returning goalkeeper Jak Karl on the defensive side of the field.
If Southern wins just one more game than last year, when the Bulldogs went 2-10, its season could be deemed a success. But Coach Jonathan Braun isn't settling for that, especially after the Bulldogs barely lost their final game of the season, 2-1, in overtime to Gwynn Park in the firstround of the playoffs.
"The kids who are back know our program well. Even some of the new guys have been around," said Braun, whose 28-player turnout included 12 seniors, seven of whom were starters lastyear. "We can improve on last year's season, but we'll have to play very strong defensively."
The Bulldogs' experience is equally distributed.
Playing a huge role will be senior defenders Shawn Snodgrass and Brennan Redman, as well as keeper Matt Davidson.
Offensiveproduction would make a big difference for Northeast, which returns its leading scorer, senior midfielder Joy Hoyer (three goals, one assist), from a 2-10 squad that lost four games by a goal.
Players like junior strikers C. J. Pelino and Dan Bennett will have to come through for the Eagles if anything is to change.
In addition to seniors Dave Fronckoski and Dwayne McMillion, at least four more players are contending for midfield spots. Some will be pushed into the defensive backfield to help returning keeper Glenn Hedgecoth.
Archbishop Spalding third-year coach Brad Rivera says it is theCavaliers' turn to win the Maryland Scholastic Association A Conference title.
"If we don't do it this season, for whatever reason, itwill be a while before we ever do win anything," he said.
One reason for Rivera's high expectations this fall is senior All-County striker Patrick Mohr. "Pat should score over 25 goals this year. He's way above a lot of people and he's one of the few players I've seen in this area that can become a national player," Rivera said.
Keeper Chris Badaczewski is supported by veteran defenders David Tomaszewski, Zachary Woods, Kenny Smith and Todd Swann.
Rick Lenfest and Brent Boone, first-year coaches at Severn and St. Mary's, respectively, have set less lofty goals for their MSA A contingents.
The Admiralswill compete in Division I, along with Friends, Boys' Latin, John Carroll, Mount St. Joseph, Archbishop Curley, Patterson and McDonogh.
Junior striker Rex Vogan and center-forward Chris Accinelli, described as "blue-chip soccer players" by Lenfest, should help Severn avoid any shutouts.
"I think our 11 starters are as good as anyone else, but we have no depth," said Lenfest, who coached the Severn girls team last season.
Boone, whose St. Mary's team will compete in Division II, along with Spalding, Calvert Hall, Loyola, St. Paul's, Gibbons and Gilman, is hoping to stay competitive in the A Conference.
Senior forwards Eamon McCormick and Rob Tobin, midfielders Steve Marsella and Justin Dunbar and keeper J. D. Gattie are among the Saints trying to upgrade last year's 9-9-2 record.