Will this finally be the year someone upsets the balance of field hockey power in Howard County?
On paper, it's hard to see that happening this fall. Centennial and Glenelg, with 15-year coaches Gail Purcell and Ginger Kincaid, have maintained a firm hold on hockey supremacy for much of the past decade.
Last year, the Eagles and Gladiators battled to a tie for the county title, finishing two games ahead of the nearest competitor. Both return teams that look to be a cut above the rest of the competition.
But hang on, fans of the underdog. This could be the year the armor reveals a noticeable chink.
Take Mount Hebron and Hammond, for instance. Each team went 4-3 against the county. Hammond returns an outstanding nucleus on offense, while Hebron, revived by first-year coach Jeanette Ireland last year, comes into the season with high expectations.
Oakland Mills, two years removed from an appearance in the 3A state title game, figures to erase last year's 5-7 disappointment under Coach Chris Marsiglia. Wilde Lake looks to move up from the middle of the pack under first-year coach Samuel Din.
Atholton and Howard, meanwhile, hope to get out of the league's cellar.
Here isa look at each team:
The Raiders' 1-9 record last year is somewhat misleading. Two victories were erased because Atholton inadvertently allowed an ineligible player to participate. In their actual losses, the Raiders were outscored only 19-14.
Third-year coach Carol Ann Stevens notes this with enthusiasm, because the Raidersreturn nine starters who have looked promising since practice openedfour weeks ago.
"I'm trying to keep it low-keyed, but people are going to be surprised by us this year," Stevens says. "Except for a new goalie, we're back everywhere else."
The defense looks like theteam's strong suit, especially if junior newcomer goalkeeper Agatha Davis' transition from junior varsity to varsity goes smoothly. She replaces Amy Blackburn, who moved out of state. Sweeper Joy Gilbert, center halfback Kristen Murphy -- a third-year player -- and halfback Katie Walter are all back and hope to make Davis' job easier.
Offensively, senior forward Gabrielle Descouteau is a third-year player who should lead the team in scoring. Seniors Eileen Fitzgerald (forward), Stasia Skillman (link) and Liane Surbrook (link) will offer support, but the wild card in the attack could be sophomore forward Nikki Auclair, who moves up from the junior varsity and assumes a starting position.
Color the Eagles contenders. No shock there, since Coach Purcell's program has been humming along efficiently for more than a decade.
Six starters return from last year's 9-3-1 team that tied Glenelg for the county championship, then lost in the first round of the playoffs. And it's a nucleus that will keep the Eagles in the county title and playoff hunts once again.
The defensecould be the league's toughest, with seniors Laure Kaylor (All-County sweeper) and Meghan Carr (goalie) back.
Carr averaged more than nine saves a game last year. Kaylor, an All-County selection last year, might be the league's best defender. Returning senior halfbacks Jenna Cowles and Christine Roney round out a strong unit.
"My defense, I'm not concerned about," Purcell says. "The inexperience on the attack is what worries me. Our problem has been finishing on offense."
The Saunders sisters, Heather and Amber, will dictate largely howthe offense produces. Heather scored three goals last year. Senior Heather Blackburn, another returning starter, also will have to assumemore of a scoring role.
Centennial's offense could receive the most lift from newcomers link Kari Chichester and sophomore Katrina Wolfe.
The Eagles look like the team to beat.
The Gladiators have enjoyed the same type of success as Centennial under another longtime mentor, Coach Kincaid. Last year, they tied Centennial for the county championship before advancing to the 2A semifinals for the third time in four years, where they lost for the third time in four years.
This year, Glenelg has its sights set on a state crown "We consider it a poor season if we don't play past Halloween," Kincaid says. Although they made it to the finals in 1979, they've yet to win the big prize under Kincaid.
They should remain in the hunt, even though all but two starters graduated -- seniors Katie Stermer (forward) and April Pich (center halfback). Five more players who were part-timers last year move into starting positions, while Kincaid expects a promising crop of juniors from last year's terrific junior varsity (the team went 8-1-2, allowing only one goal all season) to offerimmediate help.
The inexperience could hurt the Gladiators -- at least early -- at the defensive end, where goalie Kristen Turner and sweeper Trisha Slater take over. Kincaid is hoping Pich and returningsenior halfbacks Claire Sneed and Kelley Brunson stabilize the defense, along with returning senior link Jennifer Soule.
While Stermerfigures to shoulder the offensive load, new juniors Amy Dutra and Heather Inkman also are expected to contribute. Senior forwards Jennifer Fenner and Jennifer Anderson, part-time players last year, move into starting roles.
"All the juniors have come up together, and I don't usually have this kind of depth," Kincaid says. "I wouldn't call Kate and April the stars. They're just the ones with the most experience."
They also should lead Glenelg into county and state title contention one more time.
Four-year coach Gay Petrlik, usually reserved when forecasting her team's chances, makes no bones about the Bears' prospects this year. She is looking for a breakthroughseason.
"I'm not putting any limits on this group. We've got somereal experience, and our stickwork looks sharp. They look good, and they're confident," Petrlik says.
The Bears went 4-3 against the county before losing to Glenelg in the first round of the playoffs.
They return six starters and look especially strong on offense, where senior forward Autumn Barbosa (team-leading six goals) looks poisedfor a great year.
Defense is an area of concern, however, mainly because of youth. Junior goalie Jill Farrow moves up from the junior varsity, along with junior halfback Elke Ohnoutka and junior links Sureka Vajjhala and Christine Eline. Senior Amber Rouch returns on defense, but she moves from halfback to the all-important sweeper position.
The Lions have some above-average talent, but their first priority should be to retain some stability. Karen Doerrler is the team's third coach in the past three years.
"They're talented, but they don't really jell," Doerrler says.
Doerrler has some valuable pieces with which to begin her work, beginning with senior center halfback Emily Petrlik. An All-County selection last year, Petrlik is a take-charge player with excellent stick skills. She has Player of the Year talent.
Then there's senior forward Cindy Yi, a speedy,aggressive type whom Doerrler predicts will be the team's top scorer.
Two other standouts are senior newcomer Jennifer O'Carroll and returning senior goalie April Colton.
Those four should help Howardwin a bit more than the three games it took last year, but it will take significant efforts from such senior returnees as Gina Bonofiglio(forward), Jennifer Gooden (forward), Hyon Kong (defense) and Jennifer Coppel (line-defense) to put Howard over the top.
The Vikings, behind Coach of the Year Jeanette Ireland, were last season's Comeback Team of the Year. In her first year, Ireland simplyrevived a dead program as Hebron went from a 1-10 doormat to a 7-5 team that won four games against the county and just missed making theplayoffs.
This year, Ireland has the Vikings contemplating highergoals.
"I'm pleased with where we are, compared to where we were at this time last year," she says. "Our experience is showing." We'remaking the right choices, looking for the right player. Our goal is to make the playoffs."
Hebron is a good bet to be playing in the postseason. The team's six returning starters include the nucleus of asound defensive unit. Senior halfback Pam Myers and junior halfback Erica Fry are back, as is senior link Karen Fulton. Three promising newcomers up from the junior varsity -- sophomore goalie Jennifer Brooks and juniors Tierney Clark (halfback) and Christen DeMarco (link) -- give the Vikings depth.
The question marks pop up on offense. Junior forwards Stacey Kubis and Katie Anders must score much more thanthe six goals they combined for last year. Senior forward Erin Shutes also returns to add scoring punch.
The past twoyears have offered quite a contrast for fourth-year coach Chris Marsiglia. In 1989, the Scorpions had the best season in school history, going undefeated against the county and playing for the state title. Last year, having lost that entire starting lineup to graduation, they struggled early, then finished with a 5-7 record.
This year's team, which features five returning starters, figures to fall between the two in terms of talent and expectations.
"They are as together a group as I've ever seen. I'm looking for a winning season," Marsiglia says.
The main reason for the coach's optimism is an experienced defense. Junior halfbacks Mandy Miller and Carrie Petcovic are back. Junior sweeper Jill Sammons ("One of the best sweepers in the county," Marsiglia says) returns. So does sophomore goalie Kelly Naylor, atough, 5-foot-10 keeper who might be the best in the league already.
Offensively, the Scorpions will lean on returning senior forward Jennifer Bozenski. She scored two goals last year. Marsiglia would like to see at least three times that total. Marsiglia also will dependon numerous juniors up from the JV.
If the offense clicks, the Scorpions will find themselves right back in contention.
The Wildecats are coming off an encouraging 8-5 season that saw them advance to the playoffs. Samuel Din, formerly an assistant coach at Atholton and only the second male field hockey coach in county history, hopes to take the Wildecats up another notch.
"We've got pretty good stick skills, especially among the seniors," says Din, who has played on the international level.
A solid corps of returning starters should keep the Wildecats competitive. Senior center halfback Tracy Hartnett is one of the team's top talents.
Defensively, seniors Megan White and Nicole Gibson form a strong goal-keeping tandem that should keep the defense respectable, along with returning senior sweeper Katherine Keller.