Dan Hart sounds more like a weatherman these days than he does the fifth-year head coach of the Annapolis boys lacrosse team.
"The skies are looking bright again," said Hart, who along with assistants Bob Glassman, Bob Bohanan, Wayne Daniels and Mike Rose will try to get the Panthers back to the playoffs, which they missed last year for the first time in four years.
"This group has come together very nicely. The camaraderie and team chemistry have been outstanding, and it might even be the best I've ever had here at Annapolis."
Hart's optimism is justified with the Panthers' returning seven true starters and 13 players from last year's 6-8 squad. If Annapolis can surpass last year's win total by one, Hart would pick up his 100th career victory.
"We have a real good nucleus," said Hart, who enters the season with a 93-62 record, which includes eight seasons as head coach at Meade. "My close defense group is the best I've had since I've been here at Annapolis, and this is the best freshman crop I've had since I've been here."
If Annapolis is to return to the playoffs, the Panthers will get there with their defense. Senior Brendan Bellotte and sophomore David Winegrad both started last season and should anchor Annapolis' close defense. They'll be joined by seniors Craig Harrison and Tim Cook and junior Jack Copus, who were the fourth, fifth and sixth defenders, respectively, last season.
Rounding out the defense are sophomores Beau Watkins and Gus Samaras.
"Our goalie is probably our biggest question mark coming into this season," said Hart. "This spot is definitely wide, wide, wide open right now."
The three leading candidates to fill that opening are junior Jeff Ogle, who started in the net for the Panthers' junior varsity last season, sophomore Ryan Little and freshman Tobin Poole.
"They're all pretty much equal, and right now, they are untested," Hart said of his keepers. "All I'm looking for is someone who can make the average save and be consistent. With as good as our close defense is, we should be OK."
On attack, the Panthers return two true starters from last season, junior Taylor Boone (16 goals, 17 assists) and sophomore Eric Morgan (14, 12). Vying for the third attack spot will be senior Jesse Jordan, juniors Chris Harris and Shawn McFaden and sophomore Forest Roderick.
The Panthers have three starters back at midfield in senior Mike Fraioli (13, 6), senior Clancy Cornwall (10, 8) and sophomore Josh Morgan. Filling the Panthers' next three midfield positions will be Scott Regina, Kevin Belt, Brian Jefferson and Morgan Hurt.
Also seeking a role in the first or second midfield groups are sophomores Ryan Sears and Geoff Mears.
"One thing I guarantee is that we will be mentally and physically prepared and we will show up for every game," Hart said.
Archbishop Spalding's first-year boys lacrosse coach Dave Kraf has a simple philosophy.
"Execute properly on the field," said Kraft, "and the wins will come."
The wins didn't come as fast as former Cavaliers coach Terry Magnan would have liked last season, but their 6-5 record in the Maryland Scholastic Association B Conference was a step in the right direction, and Kraft intends on keeping Spalding on that path.
"Our team goal is to improve by at least one game each year," said Kraft, whose team will open league play at home Friday against Friends. "We don't want to go in cocky, but confident."
Senior attackman Dan Wolf should have all the confidence in the world. Wolf has been a starter since his freshman year and has been the Cavaliers' leading scorer the past two.
"Dan's tough," said Kraft. "He's not real flashy, but he's strong."
Junior attackman Anthony Mattera is another Cavalier who shouldn't be short on poise. Mattera was a major contributor as a sophomore and is expected to rattle opposing nets again this spring.
"In the past, Spalding teams have depended mainly on the attack to handle the bulk of the scoring, but we're going to need more scoring from our midfield," said Kraft. "Last year, the midfield played more of a defensive role. This year, we will go to more of the traditional midfield unit of doing both."
Senior Brian Zemanick is one midfielder who has proved he can get the job done offensively. However, if he continues at his current pace, he could find himself filling one of Spalding's positions at attack.
Among the other midfield candidates are seniors Pat Kiley, John Donohue, Jamie Fiegle and Scott Mattison and junior Jason Duffy.
The Cavaliers' defense is sound with seniors Rich Reilly, Tim Alber and Dennis Fohner roaming around the crease. Senior Keith Ramsey has started in the net for the Cavaliers the past couple of seasons, but he is being challenged by junior Steve Windsor, a transfer from Old Mill.
F: "They're pretty even right now," Kraft said of his two
goalies. "Our goalie is the quarterback on defense, so he has to be vocal and take control. Choosing between the two is going to make my job a lot tougher."
With the foundation for success laid out last season, Arundel's boys lacrosse team is poised to start rebuilding the winning tradition that has escaped the Gambrills school the past couple of seasons.
"I think things are heading up at Arundel," said Wildcats 17th-year coach Clint Gosnell, whose team went 6-9 last year before making a first-round exit in the region playoffs. "Every public high school program has its peaks and valleys and we sort of bottomed the past two years, but I think we're back on the upswing.
"We have a really talented bunch of kids who love lacrosse. The past couple of years we've had football players playing lacrosse, but these kids eat, sleep and breathe lacrosse."
Arundel's strength lies in its midfield. The Wildcats boast five returning starters and a talented corps of middies from their junior varsity squad that went 11-1 and won the county title last spring.
. Senior co-captain Chris Hoffman, along with fellow-upperclassmen Dan Doffermyre, Shawn Westfall and Jon Taylor, will join sophomore Mike Haertel at midfield.
Bill Titcomb is the only returning attackman for the Wildcats, and he'll be joined by junior Chris Turner, who sat out last season after starting his freshman year. Completing the first attack unit is junior Josh Tidwell, who had much to do with the success of Arundel's junior varsity.
The Wildcats' biggest question mark is their defense, which will have to answer to returning senior goalkeeper Steve Morgan. The only player back on defense is long- stick middie Jeff Taylor, who was moved up to the varsity midway through last season.
Senior captain Mike Stull is the only other defender with varsity experience, but that was at midfield last season.
"We talked about moving Mike to defense at the end of last season, and I asked him if would consider buying a long pole and he did," Gosnell said. "Right now, he looks real good. He's still learning the position, but he's a bright kid and he's confident, so he'll be fine."
Filling in around Stull and Taylor will be sophomores Greg Hausner, Tim Kelly, Ken Brown and Chris Eakins, all of whom saw some time on defense last season.
"If our seniors play up to their capabilities, we'll be able to hold our ground against everybody we play and we'll be in every game we play," said Gosnell. "We don't have the outstanding experienced players, so it's going to take a total team effort."
Broadneck's defending Class 4A-3A state champion boys lacrosse team will rely on its veteran defense to lead it back into the postseason limelight.
Bruins eighth-year coach Clay White will have to fill not only an enormous void left by the graduation of leading scorer Greg Jackson (32 goals, 36 assists), but also the entire attack.
Giving White hope and opposing attacks fits will be third-year starting goalie Sam Peterson, who yielded only 4.8 goals per game last season. Peterson, a senior and a second-team all-county performer last season, will be assisted by a veteran group of long stickmen, including third-year starter Alex Irmler and junior Brian Dobson, who started as a sophomore last season.
Rounding out the defense are senior Andrew Paez and Matt Konrad.
"Our whole defense is back and I'm excited about that, but we graduated our entire crease defense," said White, whose team defeated Baltimore County's perennial power Dulaney, 10-7, for the state title. "We lost our whole attack and we only return two middies, so we're rebuilding our offense. We have a nice blend of veterans and youth."
White -- and assistant coach Karl Berhinger -- will attempt to restructure the Bruins' unproven attack around seniors Geoff Bryce and Matt Ploss and junior Bob Hanna, all of whom saw limited action last season. Sophomore John Lengyel has shown promise early and will provide some depth at attack.
"Coach Berhinger does an outstanding job with the attack, and I'm confident he can get them together, but he has a lot of work on his hands," said White, whose team averaged more than 10 goals last season. "We just have to be patient. It's going to be up to our veteran defense to keep us in ballgames early on.
"I'm happy with our speed at attack and our athleticism. We're quick but we don't have the shooters that we had last year. Our attack may have to pay its dues early."
Broadneck returns three starters at the midfield: seniors Jason Hull (12, 13), Jeremy Ogas and junior Dave Frederick. They'll be relieved by senior Rob Eckman, sophomore Tyler Bennett and juniors Chris Fullam and Mike Tracy.
Sophomore Chris Gable will play some on defense, and Matt Lyttle provides the Bruins with a highly capable backup goalie.
"We lost five or six of our major scorers, but for the seniors on our defense, their time has come," said White. "It's their time to shine. I have one of the best defensive units I've ever had here. They might have to bail us out of some games until our offense matures."
When Bob Conner took the job as boys lacrosse coach at Chesapeake three years ago, he set one goal for himself -- add one victory each year.
So far, Conner has done that. Had Chesapeake added two victories last season, the 7-7 Cougars would have found themselves in the region playoffs, instead of watching them. Conner knows how close his team came but is also aware of how far it needs to go -- both mentally and physically.
"When we walk out on the field with Severna Park or Broadneck, psychologically, we've already given them a goal or two," said Conner. "We still have to get past that mental part of the game. We're getting better with it, but we're still not all the way there."
The Cougars graduated seven starters, but Conner describes his team as "young and eager with a solid close defense."
Anchoring Chesapeake's seasoned defense are returning seniors Paul Johnson and Kevin Ferger and senior Brian Grant, who played on the junior varsity last season. Junior keeper Eric Distin will battle converted midfielder Chris Walls for the starting goalkeeper spot.
"We have the talent and ability to upset some teams but if we do, it will probably be with our defense," said Conner. "If we play defense like we did against Arundel last year when we beat them, 3-2, in overtime, we'll be in good shape. Our key will be to keep other teams' scoring down. I'm expecting a lot out of the defense."
Seniors Eric Daniels, Manuel Diaz, Andy Daniel and Ken Findley and juniors Jason Emory and Jamie Hall all are battling for midfield spots, but some may find themselves playing defense or attack.
"We're trying to fill some holes and we might have to move some mids to attack, but so far, with the limited practices we've had because of the snow, none of them have stood out to the point where I want to call them attackmen yet," Conner said.
So far, senior Dave Wheelock is the only player Conner will label an attackman.
"I think we have enough talent that we can be competitive with the top four or five teams in the county," said Conner, whose team opens the season Friday (7 p.m.) at Glen Burnie. "I don't see any public school league that is tougher."