The formula for success in Howard County softball is a simple one -- everything is built on pitching.
Last year's top four teams -- Glenelg, Centennial, Atholton and Mount Hebron -- had the top four pitchers. Two of them, Atholton's Kim Ruprecht and Hebron's Jenny Joyce, led their teams to the state finals.
Not much should change this season, because only Glenelg lost its pitcher. Without All-County first-team pick Emily Kessler -- and six other starters -- the Gladiators (13-1 in the league last spring) could have trouble repeating as county champs.
"Centennial, Hebron and Atholton have senior pitchers who are already primed," said Glenelg coach Chuck Struhar. "In our case, we've got all these young kids we've got to bring along. We'll do all right, and I think in a year or two, we could be a state championship team, but we could sneak up on a few people this year."
For now, however, the race appears to be among Centennial, Atholton and Mount Hebron. All of their aces racked up impressive numbers last year.
The Eagles (12-2 in the league) return Kim May, a second-team All-County pick. May finished with a 17-4 record, a 1.70 ERA, 166 strikeouts and 48 walks in 132 innings pitched.
Atholton's Kim Ruprecht, also a second-team All-County pick, led the Raiders to the Class 2A state championship game where they fell, 6-1, to Damascus. Helping the Raiders finish third in the county at 10-4, she compiled a 17-7 record, a 2.24 ERA, 173 strikeouts and 59 walks in 150 innings.
The most consistent pitcher at the end of last season, however, was Mount Hebron's Jenny Joyce, an All-Metro second-teamer and All-County first-teamer. She had the best ERA at 1.25, allowed only 23 walks and struck out 126 in 144 innings. After guiding the Vikings to the state Class 3A final where they lost 8-2 to Thomas Johnson, Joyce finished with a 17-5 record.
Rebuilding Glenelg will go with Marni Brown on the mound. The sophomore won all five games she pitched last season and has the potential to be one of the league's best in a year or two.
The top three also return plenty of talent at other positions.
Among those back are three All-County first-team selections including a couple of All-Metro second-teamers, Atholton shortstop Chrissy Gavin and Glenelg center fielder Kim Brown. Centennial designated hitter Terri Bickerton is also back.
Centennial appears to have the edge with more experienced returning players than coach Dale Huting has enjoyed in a long time. Still, Huting is not calling his team a favorite even though almost everyone else is.
"I don't see this as being an easy year in the county," said Huting, whose team knows all about upsets after falling to Mount Hebron in the regional semifinals last year. "A lot of games will be tough, because the county as a whole will be very competitive. I don't know if I could pick a team to beat."
Three of the county's other four teams also return their pitchersOakland Mills brings back Diane Browne, Wilde Lake has Katie Douglas and Hammond returns Nicole Owe. All of them should be better than last year, but none is ready to step into a class with May, Ruprecht and Joyce.
Those improvements should make the race for fifth place a heated one among all of those as well as much-improved Howard, which will go with Rachel Grantham in her first year as a starter.
Pitching is also a key to the county's only independent team, Chapelgate Christian.
Junior Faith Meisinger led the Flames to their second straight Maryland Christian Athletic League championship with a 7-1 record and a 1.81 ERA. She also notched 112 strikeouts in 54 innings while allowing 56 walks.
Chapelgate has been able to dominate its league because the Flames have much more fast-pitch experience, said coach Jack Meisinger, Faith's father. With that kind of an edge on the competition, the Flames have moved on to an independent schedule until they can find another league suitable for their level of play.
They will play a wide range of teams from IND to Lutheran. They will also play Oakland Mills and compete in Glenelg's tournament.