Are the Westminster Owls a shoo-in again for the Carroll County boys cross country championship?
Most people think so.
But Owls coach Jim Gilford believes a 10th straight county title for the Owls isn't a lock.
"We're obviously not a team like we were last year," said Gilford, who was Carroll County Boys Coach of the Year last season. "There was no way we were going to lose last year. That was a once-in-a-lifetime team. This year, we're not going to overlook anybody."
The Westminster coach believes people are calling the Owls a strong favorite to "put pressure on us."
"We're a young and inexperienced team," he said. "Key and Liberty are going to have strong teams and give us some trouble."
Westminster has lost six of its top seven runners, including Carroll County Runner of the Year Jim Holford and first-team choices Chris Zendgraft, Jim Zoulias, Dion Stanton and Matt Soper.
Here's a look at the five teams:
Francis Scott Key
First-year coach Rich Salkin will try to pick up where the departed Jim Bullock left off.
Salkin is coaching boys and girls cross country as Bullock did and said: "I have big shoes again to fill. When I took over boys track last year, I had to replace John Seaman. But regardless of who coaches here at Key, we have classy athletes to work with."
Although the Key boys didn't catch Westminster last season, they did finish third in the state 1A title meet. Gone from that team is No. 1 runner Jonathan Hjembo, who was a first-team All-County selection.
However, honorable mention choice, senior Ken Oldham, is back and fighting to be No. 1 this season.
Oldham is currently third on the Eagles behind junior Damon Battaglia, who is No. 1, and No. 2 Michael Bassler, a senior.
Bassler's identical twin is senior Matt Bassler, who runs No. 5 ahead of No. 6 Jerry Wright and No. 7 Jeffrey Wright, who are juniors and identical twins.
Running fourth is senior Kyle Stephenson.
The Lions continue to gain on Francis Scott Key in what has become the most interesting matchup in the county .
Liberty had a good turnout of 16 runners this season, including junior Joe Ledda who is back for a third season after receiving honorable mention on the All-County cross country team as a sophomore.
Ledda has improved his times this season and is considered a top threat to win the individual championship this season.
"Westminster lost a lot of good runners," said Liberty coach Dan Jones. "And we've improved our depth, but we need to be consistent to close the gap further on Westminster."
Running right behind Ledda is junior Justin Combs, who is also in his third season on the team; junior Cyrus Gorman is No. 3; sophomore John Stossel is fourth; junior Mark Steinacker is fifth; sophomore Gary Barnhart is sixth; and freshman Jim Jett is seventh.
The numbers (25 out for tryouts) are there now for the Panthers' boys team.
"I've heard this is the most people we've ever had out," said Tom Davidson, who has switched from assistant girls soccer coach to head boys cross country coach. "People told me I was crazy to give up soccer for cross country, but I'm having a ball. These kids are self-disciplined and a great bunch of kids."
Davidson said he is learning his way around the sport of cross country but is receiving a lot of help from Dave Griffin, who coached North Carroll to the 1988 state boys 3A cross country championship.
The coach said he also has been helped by his top two runners, Brian Letnaunchyn and Bryan Gunning, who recruited runners for him.
Letnaunchyn, a senior, and Gunning, a junior, are in a struggle for the No. 1 spot.
Freshman Scott Harden is running third, junior Chad Shaffer is fourth and junior Gene Phillips is fifth.
The Cavaliers are strong at the top and the bottom of their lineup but need help in the middle, according to co-coach Rob Pennington.
However, the team is lacking depth because only nine runners came out this season.
Pennington and Dale Hooper are co-coaches of both the South Carroll boys and girls teams, a new strategy that Hooper says is working so far.
"The kids seem to like it," said Hooper. "If one is not there, the other can take over and know exactly what to do with both teams. This has been tried before in track and field and didn't work out too well."
Senior Kyle Tebbs is running No. 1 and is being challenged by senior Shawn Collins.
Junior Josh Fortenbaugh appears set at No. 3 and senior Steve Wallace is fourth.
The remainder of the team includes senior Raj Sureja, junior Iain Young, sophomore Matt Shaefer and freshmen Eric Parks and Sean Rayford.
The Owls have lost a lot of big-name runners, but they can blow opponents away with sheer numbers (52 out for the team).
Shawn Donovan, who ran fifth last season for the team that finished second in the state 4A meet, is the top runner returning this year.
Donovan, a senior, and junior Nate Shank are running 1-2 and their times are outstanding in the early going, according to coach Jim Gilford.
"It's hard to compare times from different years even though it's the same course," said Gilford. "But Shawn is running only a couple of seconds behind what Jim Holford was running at this time last year. And Nate is only about four seconds off Holford's times."
Juniors W. C. Knight and Sean Garber are running third and fourth for the Owls, with newcomer Tim Meerschaert (transfer from Michigan) fifth.
Junior Ryan McKinney, senior Dan Laurence and sophomore Josh Heckathorn are holding down the six through eight spots.