The Centennial tennis program is relentless.
A team that's won five straight Howard County regular-season titles and 38 of its past 39 county matches likely will be stronger in 1994.
From last year's 13-1 squad, the Eagles lost only one player -- No. 2 seed Dave Allocco -- and have upgraded their lineup by inserting skillful freshmen and sophomores. They also return No. 1 seeds Brian Ruppert, a sophomore and one of the county's best players, and senior Becky Knouse, the county and district singles champ who sports a 40-0 high school record.
"If anybody is hoping we're weaker, they're in for a surprise," said Eagles coach Bill Shook. "We have more strength coming in than we lost."
The reason for the latter is Shook. Primarily through his no-cut policy and a desire to work individually with younger players, the 10th-year coach has made Centennial's program so popular that 80 students signed up in a preseason meeting. The roster now lists 70 players, 35 boys and 35 girls.
Such turnouts would make some football coaches envious. "We'll take on some football teams if they want to play us," Shook said jokingly.
"The reason we're stronger is the freshmen and sophomores I worked with last year," he said, referring specifically to sophomores Neil Adler and Nicole Marrietta, both of whom improved from 12th to fifth seed.
In all, Centennial's talent and depth leave little hope for the remaining seven county teams. Except, that is, if you think like Mount Hebron coach Cliff Bernstein, who took over a sub-.500 team last season and molded it into a 9-5 squad, second to Centennial.
"Maybe miracles happen and maybe Mount Hebron can be that miracle this year," said Bernstein, The Baltimore Sun's 1993 county Coach of the Year.
The Vikings certainly pulled a major surprise last year. Following Bernstein's bold prediction, they upset Centennial, 5-4, on May 6, ending the Eagles' 36-match winning streak and messaging other schools that Centennial can be beaten.
This season, Mount Hebron should again be Centennial's closest contender. The Vikings return most starters from both boys and girls, including No. 1 seeds David Mitchel and Jullian Downs. Mitchel went undefeated in the regular season until losing to Howard's Sam Booker in the county championship, and Downs reached the state tournament in mixed doubles with Jason Smith, now the Vikings' fifth seed.
Mitchel, Booker and Ruppert, the county's mixed doubles champ with now junior Stephanie Knouse, are reputed as the top three boys players. Mitchel and Booker will reacquaint themselves in the teams' season-opening meet at Mount Hebron April 6.
Bernstein says the Vikings' boys are as strong as Centennial's top seven, but it's his girls who are the "critical factor in Mount Hebron's equation. It's whether or not they can manufacture enough victories to help the boys," he said.
"We are definitely capable of attaining what we attained last year," said Bernstein, "but I need some help in other schools beating Centennial.
Those remaining six teams appear clustered in capability.
Howard, which finished 6-8 and third in the county tournament, looks nearly identical to last season. All seven girls seeds are back, including No. 3 junior Megan Boehm (11-3), and four boys seeds return, including Booker and No. 4 sophomore Albert Chen (12-2). After beating Mitchel for the singles title, Booker was named The Baltimore Sun's county Player of the Year.
Craig O'Connell, the Lions' fourth-year coach, says he would be satisfied with a .500 season.
"We've been fairly strong with our boys the last couple of years," he said. "Maybe we can get a few wins from the girls to help improve our record."
Tracy Stefan is no longer around to help Wilde Lake, the county's fourth-place team. Stefan, who lost to Becky Knouse in the county title match, is playing at UMBC on a tennis scholarship.
Instead, second-year coach Rick Wilson will rely on junior Jason Engel, his No. 1 seed and the county's third-place finisher in 1993. Engel is among six of the seven seeded boys who return, but all but one girl, three being freshmen, are new.
Much is the same for Glenelg, again inundated with soccer players -- nine boys and six girls. The Gladiators' soccer teams finished a combined 15-10-2 last fall, and third-year coach Jean Vanderpool likes the winning ways the players can instill in Glenelg tennis.
"When you become accustomed to winning instead of losing, it makes you a little more competitive and you have a little edge," she said.
Glenelg's highlights are No. 6 girls seed Molly Hood (13-1) and No. 3 boys seed Mikael Soderstrom, a Swedish exchange student. The Gladiators lost all seven boys seeds, including Scott Cline, a talent at No. 4.
Atholton, 9-5 last season, welcomes new coach Barbara Rees, who had coached at Mount Hebron for eight years.
Hammond and Oakland Mills, a combined 6-22 last year, round out the competition. Hammond returns No. 1 seeded junior Keely Alexander, the county singles champ as a freshman. The Scorpions are "young and inexperienced," coach LaVan Hutchinson said.
There has been a lot of discussion among the coaches concerning a new rule that allows the home coach to choose matchups based on seedings. In a match, there are four singles and four doubles among boys and girls and one mixed doubles match, and the home coach can pick a certain alignment to gain an edge. For instance, in singles play, if the weakest alignment were Nos. 3, 4 and 5, the coach could schedule the first, second, sixth and seventh seeds and gain an edge.
Hammond coach Rich Corkran is opposed to the policy, contending that it removes the visiting coach from determining his or her team's fate. Howard is the state's only county to grant the home coach such a privilege.
"It's one of the more bizarre systems in the state," he said. "Should I tell a [home] coach to take his 6-10 center and make him a point guard? There's no strategy to coaching away matches."