A returning pitcher can make all the difference in high school softball, and John Carroll returns one of the best.
Senior left-hander Bonnie Lawson has been among the county's top pitchers for two years, and now she is in a class by herself. With tremendous speed and control to match, Lawson is expected to lead the Patriots to the county title.
Last year, the Patriots shared the title with Aberdeen, but the Rams lost their ace, Rachel Cassady, to graduation. Junior Jackie Elliott takes over, but she will have to prove herself.
Bel Air's Amy Finlayson also could pitch her team into contention, and C. Milton Wright's Jen Lewis should keep the Mustangs in the hunt.
While the top teams haven't changed much, the county schedule certainly has. Instead of playing a double round-robin county schedule to determine a champion, each team will play just one league game against each opponent.
The Class 1A teams still will play each other twice, and the Class 3A and Class 2A teams will play each other twice.
The change was made to give Class 3A and Class 2A teams a chance to schedule more games against teams in a higher classification, so they can accumulate more points toward a regional playoff berth. Teams receive the most points for a win over a Class 4A team and the fewest for a win over a Class 1A team.
While the coaches of Class 3A teams like the change, coaches of some Class 1A teams are unhappy with it.
"I think it's ridiculous," said Havre de Grace coach Tom Trafton. "It shoots our county schedule to pieces. We should hold the county championship over this regional stuff.
"I enjoyed playing teams twice. Now, we don't get that competition without playing Bel Air, C. Milton Wright, North Harford, Edgewood and Aberdeen twice."
But the team that is probably hurt the most is John Carroll. Because the Patriots don't belong to the state association and can't advance to a regional playoff, they aim only for the county title.
The Patriots are a preseason favorite for the county title, but they can't play their top rivals, Aberdeen, Bel Air and C. Milton Wright, twice.
But coach Neal Drexel, whose team is ranked No. 8 in The Baltimore Sun's preseason top 15 softball poll, has another problem. Since the Patriots are so successful, few public school coaches want to schedule them because the public school teams probably would lose, and even if they won, there wouldn't be many points to be gained.
Instead Drexel had to go to the Catholic League to get teams like No. 2 Archbishop Spalding, Mount de Sales and No. 11 IND to fill out his schedule.
Aberdeen Eagles The Eagles are coming off a 15-5 season and a trip to the state Class 3A semifinals, but they lost to graduation the pitcher who guided them there.
For Janie Robinson's squad, the rebuilding starts on the mound. Hard-throwing ace Cassady is gone, and junior right-hander Elliott takes over.
A converted catcher who did some pitching last season, Elliott could come along quickly after honing her skills at pitching clinics and on three fast-pitch teams last summer. Her control is pretty good and her speed is improving.
"If Jackie pitches within herself, some people will be very surprised," said Robinson, in her 23rd season with the Eagles.
The Eagles, who finished last year ranked No. 10 by The Baltimore Sun, will need to play a little more defense this year. The outfield looks solid with senior veterans Lisa Williamson, Krista Matherly and Michelle Motley.
In the infield, two more senior starters return. Michele Bennett and Melody Doran have the corners covered at first and third base, respectively. Junior Tonia Morehead moved up from JV for the playoffs and will play second and sophomore Billie Jo Sills moves up to take over at short.
Behind the plate, junior Tinisha Moore will handle Elliott while Rochelle Brown works her way back from injury. Junior Ida Hernandez will play a utility role, and sophomore Amanda Agnew might break into the starting lineup somewhere in the infield.
Defensively, the Eagles should be solid in the outfield and on the left side of the infield, but the right side hasn't been tested.
Bel Air Bobcats The Bobcats have the up-and-coming pitcher in junior Finlayson, and that should help them recover more quickly from losing six starters to graduation.
Finlayson has improved her speed and added a couple of pitches. The right-hander turned in some impressive performances but should be more consistentthis year.
Coach Val Cooper is juggling most of her lineup, but her three other returning starters will retain their spots. Junior Danielle Rhode will start at short, and seniors AnneMarie Linnett and Tasha Rice return to the outfield.
Seniors Sara Daniels and Dana Enlow will battle for the third outfield position, and Jamie Kocher could see action there, too.
Three juniors move up from JV to fill in the infield, Sherry Godbee at third, Jenni Mark at second and Ashleigh Carter at first. Junior Shelby Robbins and freshman Kristen Carmello can catch, and juniors Laura Reich, Jenny Conway and Denette Jablecki will play reserve roles.
With so many players moving up from a strong JV squad, Cooper said she has the foundation to improve on an 8-9 record. Defensively, she expects the squad to be strong, especially in the infield.
At the plate, however, the Bobcats have some room for improvement.
"We've been doing a lot of work on hitting," said Cooper, "because I always feel when I look back that has been our weak spot. We haven't gotten the clutch hits."
C. Milton Wright Mustangs Like Bel Air, the Mustangs struggled at the plate last year, and they, too, have gotten precious little time to practice batting because of the weather.
Six starters graduated from last year's 12-6 squad, so coach John Seaman will need some offense from the newcomers if the Mustangs are to match that record.
Seaman is also a bit unsure of the defense. "That's a big question mark for us, because I don't know a whole lot about this team. Our infield is almost all new players this year," he said.
Although they've lost a lot of talent, the Mustangs return pitcher Jen Lewis, a third-year veteran. Lewis, a junior left-hander, is the master of precision among county pitchers. She doesn't have overpowering speed, but she makes up for it with control. In 18 games last season, Lewis walked 16 batters and posted a 1.99 ERA.
Also back is All-County outfielder Melisa Billings, a junior who had seven assists last season. An excellent leadoff hitter, Billings will be joined in the outfield by returning senior Heather Huffman.
Others vying for starting spots in the outfield include senior Jen Eller and juniors Diana Rice, Lois Breece, Samantha Callis and Kate Ricklefs.
In the infield, the Mustangs will have an all-new lineup, and Seamans is juggling it. Senior Laura Rice and juniors Katie Kraus and Heather Ravert are first basemen, and senior Amy Gould and juniors Sherri Bruno, Shannon Crouch and Missy Leonard battle for the other infield spots.
Senior Erica Dietrich or Eller could catch. Bianca Moravec and Patty Eller, both junior right-handers, will relieve Lewis.
Edgewood Rams The Rams return a host of veterans from a team that posted a winning record after finishing 6-12 in 1991.
First-year coach Mark Buzminsky has a pretty good idea of who will start since nine players return. Headlining that slate is senior right-handed pitcher Kelly Rider. Although her speed is in the medium range, Rider has pretty good control.
"Kelly has the accuracy and we have a strong enough defense that we should be able to back her up well," said Buzminsky.
Most of the infield starters return, with junior Airon Young catching, senior Monica Santana at second, sophomore Jenny Collins at short and senior Ann Collins at third. Senior Jamie Kozub faces a battle with junior Stacey Jenkins at first.
Senior Kim Clark will be in left field, with senior Heather Sexton and junior Shannon Basham alternating in center and right.
Juniors Denise Sines and Ursula Licha will share duties as designated hitter, and juniors Kim Taylor and Angel Amaroso will play reserve roles.
There's power in the middle of the lineup the Rams should get on base a lot. Santana will hit cleanup, and Young, Sexton and the Collins sisters also should do well offensively.
The Rams will have to hit the top pitching, though, if they are to crack the top four.
Fallston Cougars The Cougars managed a 5-11 record last season, but they never lost by more than three runs. Consistency was the biggest problem, as the Cougars beat co-county champ Aberdeen but also fell to last-place Joppatowne.
Coach Vicki Wright's squad, with only two starters back, has been hurt by injury. Three potential starters, catcher Danielle Maliszewski, third baseman Kristie Pugh and outfielder Lindsay Marshall, are out for now.
Wright is looking for junior right-hander Amy Bauersfeld to do most of the pitching. Although she is consistent and has good control, Bauersfeld lacks the speed of the league's top pitchers, so she will need some help.
The Cougars' biggest problem -- other than injuries -- seems to be defense. "We've got a long way to go," said Wright. "We had to go back to basics. Every day we work on fundamentals for 45 minutes or an hour so we don't give up the easy runs. The big plays will come with time."
Shortstop Pam Gauss is the only healthy returning starter. The only senior, Kara Jackson, will be at first base, and returning junior Heather Meyer will be in right field.
Junior Jamie Berdine will take over at third, with sophomore Kim Rapisarda and freshman Katie Wirth splitting time at second. Junior Amanda Kahmer and freshman Julie Clark will be in the outfield. Sophomore Amy Kissinger will catch.
Junior Jeanine Biondo will back up at first, with sophomore Stacey French as utility infielder and freshman Emily Weibel in the outfield. Sophomore Kara Cooper will go in relief of Bauersfeld.
Harford Christian Eagles The Eagles' most powerful opponent last year was the weather. Five games were rained out, and the team finished 4-3.
This year, coach Charlotte Street has 13 games scheduled, and the Eagles will be lucky to get all of those in. Even before the snow hit, Street knew she would get a late start, with many basketball players in action until two weeks ago.
However, with a strong returning lineup that includes eight starters, the Eagles should be in contention for postseason action in two leagues. Although they do not play in the Harford County League, the Eagles could earn playoff berths in the Maryland Association of Christian Schools Athletic Conference and the Susquehannock Independent Athletic Conference.
Topping the returnees is pitcher Jen Chatham, a senior right-hander who has medium speed and fairly good control. Also back are seniors Jen Kreisel at third base and Melodie Brown at second. Sophomore Suzanne Akers is at short and junior Jennifer Patrick catches.
Jettie Moir quarterbacked the outfield last year as a freshman and is the only returning starter. Street expects her to improve with the year's experience. Also back but starting for the first time are junior Kristen Kisling and sophomores Melisa Bell.
Harford Tech Cobras The Cobras are making their debut in the county league. Although six girls return from a short junior varsity season, the Cobras are still quite young.
"We're just trying to build for the future," said coach James Eberwine, who has one senior on the roster. "We'll try to get off to a good start and be competitive. But I told the girls not to be too disappointed if we can't compete as well as we'd like, because we'll be facing some girls who have been playing together for a while."
Eberwine will build his team around the four juniors, catcher Tish Kitts, shortstop Tracy Kirkwood, third baseman Melanie Brammer and outfielder Sherrylynne Stucki, and two sophomores, pitcher Michelle Woods and first baseman Poppy Rupert, who return.
Junior Tiffany Dixon will take over at second base, and sophomore Monica Krausch can play a variety of infield positions. Senior Joyce Labrenz, sophomore Pam Surrette and freshmen Joni Kammler and Laura Sheltrown will battle for time in the outfield.
Havre de Grace Warriors Tom Trafton's squad finished 10-9 last season and reached the Class 1A regional final. Although they lost four starters, including All-Metro catcher Colleen Grady, the Warriors should be a stronger defensive team.
The Warriors should be tougher up the middle, with returning seniors Kim Hill in left field, Bobbi Zachry at shortstop an junior Nicole Barker at second. Sophomore Rhonda White returns in center field.
On the mound, senior Rebecca Hawkins is back for her third starting season. Although she has better speed and more control, Hawkins will need better defense behind her if the Warriors are to improve.
Rounding out the infield, juniors Amy Allingham or Wendy Gehman could go at third with junior Martha Boyle at first. Junior Jamie Brogan and senior Kerrie Bauer could battle Barker for second.
Senior Jaime Smyth can catch, and White and sophomore Jennie Crouse also can play behind the plate. Crouse also could earn a starting spot in the outfield with junior Christine Williams in reserve.
"We're not as strong hitting as we used to be," said Trafton. "We'll be more balanced hitting-wise, but we won't have much in the way of power hitting."
John Carroll Patriots With three of the league's outstanding players returning, the Patriots are the team to beat.
Pitcher Bonnie Lawson, shortstop Amity Torbit and second baseman Katie Nietubicz, senior All-Harford County picks, compiled some of the league's best statistics as the Patriots finished 14-5 and shared the county title with Aberdeen.
Lawson, a left-hander, is the premier pitcher in the county. She also batted cleanup, driving in 20 runs.
Torbit, Co-Player of the Year in Harford County last spring, and Nietubicz, are among the best fielders in the county. As the leadoff and No. 2 hitters in the lineup, respectively, they also get on base a lot, and stole 27 bases last year.
Coach Neal Drexel's squad also has junior catcher Kelly Barnes, senior left fielder Laura Meerholz and junior utility player Laurie Giorno back. Newcomers who should see plenty of action include five sophomores, first baseman Heather Pyzic, third baseman Casey Wollenweber, infielder Anne Romanelli and outfielders Lisa Chrismer and Melissa Smith.
"We should stack up the same way we usually stack up," said Drexel, in his 13th season. "We should be a good defensive ballclub, but we're young, and that could affect our hitting."
Joppatowne Mariners The Mariners only won one game last year for first-year coach Dan Eaton, but it didn't help to lose more than half of their starters.
Still, the Mariners show some promise for this season.
"We're real hopeful, because we have some good players with good speed and I think it's going to be a good season," said assistant coach Peggy Teague.
The defense will have to improve, and with some talented newcomers to the starting lineup, it could. Senior Sunda Selle is the only player back in the infield and should start at third. Senior Heather Davis and junior Jamie Vanderwarka are back in the outfield.
Newcomers to the starting lineup include senior Karina Korenszuk at second, junior Erin Lieb at first and junior April Meise in the outfield.
Three juniors, who move up from JV, also could earn starting assignments. Junior Santae Boyd will play second, and junior Amanda Rumsey will catch. Junior Kristen Conway could catch or play first base.
North Harford Hawks Hawks coach Ben Bray has put together a killer out-of-county schedule to get his team ready to compete in the county league. Of five opponents from other counties, four -- North East (Cecil), Rising Sun, North Carroll and Bohemia Manor -- have won state championships.
With every starter returning, the Hawks should have a solid defense, but they will need more offense to improve on last season's 4-13 record.
"We didn't come through with the timely hits that would score runs," said Bray, "and last year that hurt us in games we were in and playing well in."
Junior right-handers Rebecca Williams and Kristen Murk have worked hard to improve their speed and control.
The Hawks return a fine defensive infield with seniors Michele Dieter at first, Elizabeth Daniels at second and Dawn Hale at short and junior Melissa Anderson at third.
Behind the plate, the Hawks also have a top talent, senior Tonia Bruno. With an excellent arm, Bruno had a .955 fielding average and threw out 12 runners last year.
In the outfield, senior Rachel Tanchuk is in left with junior Andrea Cumberland in center and junior Heather McGreevy in right.
Harford County softball players to watch
* Melissa Anderson, North Harford, Jr., third baseman -- The Hawks' leadoff hitter, Anderson led her team with 21 runs scored and 18 stolen bases. She also batted .362. A strong fielder with good range and a good arm, Anderson had an .806 fielding average.
* Melisa Billings, C. Milton Wright, Jr., outfielder -- A scrappy All-County selection, Billings has an excellent arm and had seven assists last season. She fielded .959. Leading off, she hit .340, walked 22 times and scored a team-high 28 runs.
* Tonia Bruno, North Harford, Sr., catcher -- The top returning catcher in the county, Bruno has an outstanding arm. She threw out 12 runners trying to steal second and had a .955 fielding average. Bruno hit .444 and led the Hawks with eight extra-base hits, including five triples.
* Ann Collins, Edgewood, Sr., third baseman -- A top hitter for the Rams, Collins had one of the top averages on her team last year. In the field, she has plenty of range and a strong arm. She should be the team leader for the Rams.
* Jackie Elliott, Aberdeen, Jr., pitcher -- A former starting catcher, Elliott makes the move to the mound, where she pitched a game and a half last year. Although untested, Elliott has some speed and decent control. She batted .328 with eight extra-base hits and stole 20 bases last season. She's also an excellent bunter.
* Amy Finlayson, Bel Air, Jr., pitcher -- With speed second only to John Carroll's Bonnie Lawson, Finlayson is coming off an 8-8 season and a 2.88 ERA. In 102 innings, she struck out 81 and walked 53. She also batted .339 and led her team with 15 RBI and seven extra-base hits, including three homers.
* Pam Gauss, Fallston, Jr., shortstop -- The only starter returning to the Cougars' infield, Gauss has good range and should improve easily on a .558 fielding average. With a good eye at the plate, she walked 16 times while batting .351, driving in six runs and scoring 16.
* Rebecca Hawkins, Havre de Grace, Sr., pitcher -- For the second straight year, Hawkins posted a 3.00 ERA. She struck out 110 and walked 50 in 124 innings, but gave too many batters pitches they could hit. With better speed, she'll try to battle the hitters harder this year.
* Bonnie Lawson, John Carroll, Sr., pitcher -- The premier pitcher in the county, the left-hander compiled a 1.62 ERA last year. She struck out 171 batters while walking 88. In 104 innings, she gave up just 40 hits. At the same time, Lawson batted cleanup, hitting .315 with 20 RBI.
* Jen Lewis, C. Milton Wright, Jr., pitcher -- Lewis is the county's control ace, averaging less than a walk per game, with 16 in 123 innings a year ago. Although she doesn't throw hard, she can nail the corners. With a 12-6 record, Lewis posted a 1.99 ERA and struck out 62.
* Katie Nietubicz, John Carroll, Sr., second baseman -- The Patriots' No. 3 hitter, Nietubicz led her squad with a .588 batting average and 28 RBI. An excellent fielder, the All-County pick had a .944 fielding average. She also stole 12 bases.
* Rachel Tanchuk, North Harford, Sr., outfielder -- The Hawks' top hitter, Tanchuk averaged .525 with six doubles and drove in 14 runs. Good speed and a strong arm also made her a valuable asset in the outfield where she had an .875 fielding average.
* Amity Torbit, John Carroll, Sr., shortstop -- Co-Player of the Year in Harford County last year, Torbit showed excellent range in the field and didn't make an error. A terrific leadoff hitter, Torbit batted .466 and led the Patriots with 29 runs scored. She also led the team in stolen bases with 15.