The Howard County baseball race shapes up as a five-team affair with Class 2A state champion Glenelg and Class 3A state finalist Centennial as front-runners.
Mount Hebron, Hammond and Atholton are also expected to be competitive.
Even though Glenelg returns most of its players from a a team that batted .370, few coaches expect the Gladiators to run away with the title because their pitching may not be as strong.
Centennial, which finished second last season, returns ace pitchers Kurt Weitzel and Dave Hudson but needs to improve its hitting to beat out the Gladiators.
The Raiders have a solid nucleus of returning players from an 11-8 team and expect to be competitive among the top teams. They were 8-6 in league play.
A lot depends on how well senior Shane Beaver pitches. The tall right-hander throws hard but was only 2-4 last season with a 3.85 ERA in 36 1/3 innings.
He has some pop in his bat -- he hit three homers -- but hasn't hit for much of an average.
Senior Keith Schultz, an off-speed thrower, returns with impressive statistics, a 5-1 record and 2.74 ERA.
Senior Spike Altman was successful out of the bullpen last season. He also plays second base.
The Raiders also will have junior left-hander Dan Keyser, a control pitcher with a good curveball. And transfer Jonathan Edwards is a junior right-hander who throws hard.
Offensively, the Raiders rely upon the Schneider brothers. Derrek, a center fielder, batted .338 with eight doubles and two ++ triples last season. Ryan, a catcher, batted .346 with 12 RBIs. Both are seniors.
Pete Yoder, a junior first baseman who played 11 games last season and batted .308, also will contribute.
Atholton's most promising newcomer is Brandon Eiserman. The junior third baseman can hit, and do it with some power.
Junior Bill Hite plays second base and sophomore Jason Sanders will start at shortstop.
Senior Marc Lowenthal is a returning infielder.
Outfielders fighting for starting spots include juniors Jamie Burford, Chad Patterson and John Bailey.
"I'm hoping that the veterans have better years and that the junior varsity kids step up," Atholton coach Kevin Kelly said. "Our JV won 15 games."
The team will have better depth than last year but has a whole new infield and lots of question marks.
The Raiders tied for the county title in 1992.
The Eagles are a team that was thrilled to make the state finals last season and is eager to get back.
Since they return all but one starter from a 14-8 team that $H finished second in league play at 10-4, chances for a return trip appear strong. Included among the returning players are premier pitchers Kurt Weitzel and Dave Hudson.
But Eagles coach Ron Martin thinks it will be harder this season to make the playoffs. "Poly has dropped from 4A into our region and always has a good team, and two other Baltimore City schools are likely to get in just because they play weak schedules. That probably leaves one spot left for several very good programs like Mount Hebron, Broadneck, James Bennett and us.
"In past years I've said you could lose six games and make the playoffs, but this year you'll have to do better. And that's going to be hard because our county is so tough. Nearly every team has most of their players back."
Martin knows he is fortunate to have two excellent senior pitchers such as Weitzel and Hudson, however.
Weitzel was 8-4 with a 1.10 ERA. He fanned 99 and walked only 17 in 70 innings. He allowed 49 hits. Weitzel also can hit, posting a .325 average and playing shortstop when not on the mound.
He out-dueled highly regarded Watkins Mill pitcher Jason Smithberger in the state semifinal, as fourth-seeded Centennial upset the top seed, 2-0, in extra innings. Weitzel struck out a personal-high 13 that game. He throws a curveball, forkball and fastball.
Hudson throws harder than Weitzel but doesn't have quite as much movement on his pitches. He failed to get much support last season and finished with a 4-2 record. His ERA was 2.43. In 46 innings, he struck out 53, walked 24 and allowed 25 hits.
"He was clocked at a Florida State baseball camp throwing 86 mph," Martin said.
Hudson threw a no-hitter against Carver in the regional championship game, and earned a playoff save against Watkins Mill by pitching a scoreless bottom of the eighth inning.
Although Centennial has good pitching and defense, it needs improved offensive output. The Eagles were shut out, 3-0, in the state final by Lansdowne.
Junior catcher Jason Babcock led the team in hitting with a .343 average.
Senior Joe Mellendick, a middle infielder who missed some of last season with a broken hand, and before that was hampered by a sore wrist, is expected to add some offense. He also can pitch.
Junior outfielder and first baseman Kevin O'Connor batted only .242 but led the team with 15 RBIs.
Martin is looking for someone to fill the third-base spot. Senior Dan Christine and junior Ryan Marks are candidates.
Other returning players include junior outfielder Brian Dowell, senior outfielder Trevor Groves and junior outfielder Curtis Mitchell.
Newcomers include senior outfielder and pitcher Jeff Goldberg, junior first baseman and pitcher Jeff Windish and junior infielder Kevin Eastham.
The Gladiators return most of the team that won the Class 2A state championship.
Glenelg batted .370 as a team and outscored its opponents, 226-71.
Included among the returning players are two first-team All-Metro players, five first-team All-County players and The Baltimore Sun's Howard County Player of the Year, Brian Boteler.
Boteler, a first-team All-Metro third baseman, batted .470. Mike Goldberg, the first-team All-Metro shortstop, batted .373 with seven homers and a county-record 36 RBIs. Boteler is a senior and Goldberg a junior.
Junior left-hander Sean Lookingbill, who was 6-1 with an 0.57 ERA, also returns. Lookingbill threw two shutouts in the playoffs. fanned 73, walked 20 and allowed 25 hits in 73 innings. He was first-team All-County.
Other first-team All-County returning players include junior catcher Mike Deming, who batted .383, senior center fielder Matt Morraye (.359) and designated hitter Kevin Curtin (.480).
Deming had two doubles and a single in the 7-1 state championship victory against Rockville. He and Curtin alternated behind the plate last season.
Glenelg also returns first baseman Ray Sullivan, who batted over .300 and had a 2-0 pitching record. He had three RBI doubles in the state championship game.
Other returning players include senior second baseman Charles Hooker, senior left fielder Mike Riley, senior outfielder John Kozora and senior pitcher Steve Zumbrum. Riley led the junior varsity in batting two years ago, but didn't get much playing time last season.
Newcomer Zach Guerra, a junior outfielder, also is expected to contribute.
Glenelg's only question mark is pitching. Lookingbill was injured last summer and recently reinjured his arm doing stretching exercises. "He's behind right now," Glenelg coach Terry Coleman said.
Since Glenelg graduated Jeff Lewis (7-2) and relief pitcher Dave Gunter, it has holes to fill.
Goldberg hopes to be the No. 2 starter. Boteler will take the closer's job. Sullivan and Zumbrum hope to supply the rest of the pitching.
"Our main objective is to win the county," Coleman said. "We're not even thinking about another state title right now.'"
But Coleman would like to beat Calvert Hall, a powerful rival that Glenelg has never beaten.
"We came close in 1983, losing 7-6," Coleman said. Glenelg won its only other state title in 1983. It is the only county baseball team to have won a state championship.
"This team has great chemistry," Coleman said. "We think one of the teams that will challenge us in the county is Centennial because they have great pitching."
The Bears lost to Rockville in the state Class 2A semifinals last season, and they return most of that team, including All-County second baseman Dave Brewer.
The Bears were 14-6 overall and 9-4 in the league. One game against Mount Hebron was never played.
They have two experienced right-handed pitchers returning, senior knuckleballer Jeff Price and senior Ross Kaplan.
Price went 7-3 with a 1.66 ERA. In 60 innings he fanned 44 and walked 12.
Kaplan was 4-1 with a 2.50 ERA. He pitched 28 innings.
Coach Bob Maxey hopes that junior Aaron Smith steps up to give him a quality third starter.
"I think my third starting pitcher will be better than most other teams have, so I won't mind games getting backed up because of bad weather," Maxey said.
Hammond returns some good offensive players, as well.
Senior first baseman Justin Lavis batted .338. The 240-pounder also has some surprising speed.
Senior second baseman Brewer batted .370 and is strong defensively.
Kevin White platooned at third base last season and the senior batted .333.
And center fielder Andrew Jenkins batted .328. The junior stole 21 bases.
Junior catcher Chad Weiner batted .287 and Maxey thinks he's an all-county prospect.
Junior outfielder Ted Crews is likely to start.
The rest of the team includes junior pitchers Greg Douglas and Kevin Mack, sophomore designated hitter Chris Dresslin and junior shortstop Mike Embrey, who will start.
"We can win 12 or 13 games, but we need to win early to help our confidence," Maxey said. "We have six good hitters, our defense is reasonable and our pitching needs to keep its ERA under four runs. We'll match our speed with any other team.'"
Second-year coach Matt Forsyth says he is "cautiously optimistic" about his team's chances. He returns almost everyone from a 1-18 team. The Lions beat Oakland Mills.
"We're greatly improved and solid at all nine positions," Forsyth said. "Our defense was our downfall last season and that's 100 percent improved."
He's not quite as upbeat about the offense. Howard batted .230 as a team last season.
"We don't have much power and we're relatively small, so we'll have to scratch for runs," he said.
He sees the team's dedication as one of the signs it will be much improved. "We have kids coming early to practice and leaving late.'"
Cailean Leith figures to be the ace of the pitching staff. The junior will play third base when not pitching.
"He's my best returning player," Forsyth said. "He can hit and play defense."
Rusty Miller, a transfer from Cardinal Gibbons who batted .330 for the Crusaders last season, will play shortstop and be the No. 3 pitcher. The junior is likely to be the team's best hitter.
Juniors A. J. Durham and Brian Snively and sophomore Larry Long are the starting outfielders. Long will pitch in relief.
Junior Andy Call is the No. 2 pitcher and will play some first base.
Senior Mark Godfrey will start at second base.
Frank Tortella is a sophomore catcher with some power in his bat.
Other infielders include juniors Brian Glover at shortstop, John Goode at third base and Kevin Nawrocki at second base.
The rest of the team includes juniors Chris Augsburger, a pitcher, Kevin Williams, a catcher, and Jeff Wickleim, an outfielder.
Mount Hebron Vikings
The Vikings return 11 players from a 9-8 overall season and fourth-place (8-5) county finish.
"We'll be solid all around but we don't have the ace pitcher," Vikings coach Dave Appleby said. "How well we do will depend " on the pitching."
The Vikings may not have an ace, but they have two pretty good returning pitchers, Greg Hylock and Mike Cudzillo.
Hylock, who already has signed with UMBC, was 3-1 with a 2.63 ERA. But he'll play the outfield at UMBC and is more noted for his hitting.
The center fielder batted .446 with two homers, four doubles, one triple and 17 RBIs. He also has speed. He stole 26 bases in 27 attempts and scored 22 runs. Last season he was All-County at first base.
Cudzillo, a senior who was All-County at third base last season, will play shortstop. He batted .350 with four doubles and 15 RBIs but had a disappointing pitching season.
Another returning .300 hitter is senior outfielder Brian Beneciewicz.
Senior first baseman Mark Jensen batted .330.
Rusty Shown, a senior catcher, is a streak hitter who clubbed three homers in a game against Atholton.
Senior reserve infielder Dereck Colburn returns.
And prospective pitchers Matt Driscoll and Ben Colvard, both seniors, may be the keys to the season.
Driscoll was injured halfway through last season and has a lot of potential. Colvard throws hard but lacks experience.
Junior third baseman Jim Long is up from junior varsity with a good bat.
Junior Tony Giro will play second base. And sophomore Keith Radcliffe will play center field when Hylock pitches.
Juniors comprise the rest of the team including pitchers David Pruitt, Billy Blair, John Makowski and Kevin Woods, catcher John Pruitt and infielders Brian Schaeffer and Brian Slater.
Mount Hebron failed to make the playoffs last season, a failure Appleby blamed on poor defense.
Oakland Mills Scorpions
Coach Tim O'Brien coached Wilde Lake's team last season but has switched to Oakland Mills, where he teaches.
Matt Noon, the team's star pitcher on a team that was 3-15 overall and 3-11 in the league last season, now is pitching for Boston College. He pitched 60 innings and threw six complete games and his departure leaves O'Brien with an inexperi-enced squad that lacks proven pitching.
Senior Chad Fekel threw 16 inings last season with an 0-2 record and one save. And James Hunt is a 6-foot-4 hard thrower but needs to gain control.
Junior Mike Orndorff and sophomore John Sunderdick also are hoping to see time on the mound.
"We have no No. 1 starter, so we may have pitching by committee until someone steps up," O'Brien said.
Offensively, the team also has a ways to go.
Junior catcher Eamon Gallagher led the team with a .365 average, and junior second baseman Jon Vassil batted .283 in 18 games. Beyond them, no one has much varsity success.
Gallagher's best effort was a 4-for-5 effort in a win over Howard. He drove in five runs and hit a three-run homer.
Three seniors are looking to win outfield spots, including James Beale, Mike Draminski and Andy Lerner. Juniors Tim Wlliamson and Nik Michniewicz are also outfield candidates.
Senior Marc Linehan and junior Jeremy Almazan are battling for the shortstop spot.
Junior Bruce Berry will play first base and junior Marshall Singh is at third base. Junior Jon Alexander is a backup catcher.
Oakland Mills beat Wilde Lake, Centennial and Howard last season, and the Scorpions lost eight games by three or fewer runs.
They need to cut down on errors and walks to be more successful.
"They are eager to learn and have a great attitude and that's what makes coaching exciting," O'Brien said. "We're not exceptionally talented, so we need to outwork everyone. We're trying to be more aggressive.'"
Wilde Lake Wildecats
The Wildecats return just three players from last season's 4-13 team.
Assistant Jim Mowder, 28, has moved up to head coach after Tim O'Brien switched to Oakland Mills.
"We have a lot of tough, hard-nosed kids and will be hoping for more than four wins this season," Mowder said. "We won't be spectacular, but we should be solid."
Among the three returning players, senior infielder Mike Hinman, senior outfielder and pitcher Mark Davis, and junior catcher Tony DeSantis, none returns with any notable offensive statistics.
Two newcomers who look as though they'll hit well are junior outfielders John Claudius and Guy Shannon. Claudius, a left-handed batter with some power, is a transfer from Frederick.
The team has some speed in outfielder Sean Dangelone and catcher DeSantis.
The pitching is unproven and Mowder plans to throw several pitchers per game until someone emerges as a starter.
Juniors Frank DeSantis (Tony's brother) and Chad Whipkey and sophomore Jason Cohen are pitching possibilities along with Davis.
Sophomore first baseman Dylan Gentile offers Mowder another left-handed bat. Aaron Peterson, a junior, is also a first baseman.
Junior Jason Meter plays the outfield and junior Micah Zwirling is an infielder.
"Our defense should be solid," said Mowder, a science teacher at Clarksville Middle School who played baseball at Oakland Mills in the early 1980s and has coached in the Columbia Reds summer baseball program.