Area soccer this year is in for some big changes, with new division alignments, new coaches and even a few new title contenders.
And already there is controversy concerning the program at McDonogh, last season's No. 1 team.
McDonogh, primed for a run at its third straight Catholic League A Division title, forfeited its season opener to Loch Raven. Because of disciplinary action, the Eagles did not have enough players to field a team for last Thursday's game.
"We have strict disciplinary rules, training rules, and the rules were violated," said Eagles' coach Maurice Boylan Jr., who declined to give further details. "The penalty was that we were going to have to forfeit that game. It was an unfortunate circumstance, but it will not be a problem after this."
The forfeit hurt the Eagles' record but it should not hurt their title bid although they will have to hold off the challenges of up-and-comers Mercy and Catholic.
McDonogh (21-0-2 last year), led by 1994 All-Metro Player of the Year Laurie Schwoy (69 goals, 23 assists), lost 10 players to graduation, transfer or injury. Most of the losses came on defense, where the Eagles will be forced to start three freshmen.
"They say a good offense is a good defense," said Boylan. "We think we'll score a lot of goals, but we're not a dominating team."
In the Catholic League B Division, the battle should come down to defending champion Seton Keough and newcomer Notre Dame Prep.
Eleven seniors return for the Gators, including league Player of the Year Melanie Morris, who moves from goalie to right wing.
Notre Dame Prep, traditionally a winter soccer program, will compete in its first full season in fall ball. The Pirates went 8-2 last winter, losing only to McDonogh.
The biggest change in the area comes in Baltimore County, where public schools have abandoned the 3A-4A and 1A-2A leagues in favor of three ability-oriented divisions.
Division I will be comprised of the strongest and traditionally most powerful teams -- including Perry
Hall, Dulaney and Loch Raven. The winner of Division I will meet the winner of the slightly weaker Division II for the county championship.
Other less heralded programs will comprise Division III.
The system -- also in place for boys soccer, volleyball and field hockey -- is designed to make every game competitive and eliminate blowouts, said Baltimore County Coordinator of Athletics Ron Belinko.
"We examined each sport, got input from the coaches and basically grouped teams together to make competitive leagues," said Belinko.
The change, he said, was made possible by the state's switch last year to an open tournament, eliminating the need for teams to qualify on the basis of points.
"When you're playing teams with an equal level of ability, your players become more confident," said Eastern Tech coach Nikki Caperna. "It's nice to go into a game and know you're not going to get creamed."
Most Division I coaches prefer the new alignment although some teams that did well last year face a tougher ride in a more competitive league.
"It's better for the sport. It's better for the kids," said Perry Hall coach Pat Sokoloski, who returns after a year off. "When it comes to tournament time, these kids will be tested. It gives our county a little bit more credibility."
Sokoloski's Gators, coming off a 2-1 loss to Centennial in last year's Class 3A-4A state title game, have the early edge on the competition because they return all but one player, although they've filled that spot with a talented transfer.
Archrivals Dulaney and Loch Raven bring in new coaches Amy Green and Anthony Menegatti, respectively. Both field experienced squads that should give the Gators a strong run for the title. Hereford, which reached the state semifinals for the first time in school history last fall, also has the potential to challenge for the top spot.
In Division II, Catonsville and Owings Mills should battle it out for the crown, with Sparrows Point, Overlea and Dundalk in contention.
The Baltimore City League has five teams, down one from last season. Southern will not field a team. Western, which went unbeaten in the league last season, is the favorite but look for Patterson and City to push the Doves.