Picking the front-runners in any of the local field hockey leagues could not be more difficult this year. Even the coaches have a hard time pinning down the teams to beat.
While the Association of Independent Schools always has been a tough call, Baltimore County has become just as tight with the introduction of two new divisions based on strength.
The new format should eliminate many of the lopsided scores posted in the past and has received favorable reviews from most county coaches, especially those whose teams are rebuilding.
"When they changed leagues, I was ecstatic," said Dundalk coach Ann Merritt, whose team was 2-10 last season. "With the change, I think that we can have a fairly good season."
Lansdowne coach Debbie Henkel, whose team was 0-12 last season, said, "The divisional change will certainly benefit. I'm encouraged. I expect to win some games this year."
Dundalk and Lansdowne will compete in the Mallard Division along with Carver A&T;, Catonsville, Overlea, Owings Mills, Patapsco, Sparrows Point and Woodlawn.
They won't have to face the county's best teams, who are in the Heron Division -- Chesapeake, Dulaney, Franklin, Hereford, Kenwood, Loch Raven, Parkville, Perry Hall, Pikesville and Towson.
"The level of play was so diverse for everybody," said Hereford coach Tammy Mundie. "It's better competitively for the kids now. They enjoy it better, playing with teams on their level."
Both Baltimore County division titles appear to be up for grabs.
Everyone seems in the race for the top of the Mallard Division. Although Loch Raven, Dulaney and Towson seem to have an edge on the rest in the Heron Division, any team could step up and take the division.
"We could go 0-for or do well," said Perry Hall coach Linda Fisher. "Everyone is well-matched."
Coaches in the AIS are familiar with that kind of parity.
Last year, the competition was so close in the AIS tournament that only three games were decided by more than one goal -- all of those by two goals and two in overtime. Three A Division quarterfinals went to double overtime as did one of the B Division semifinals.
"With the amount of parity in the league and the amount of skill, you can't overlook anybody," said Friends coach Carol Samuels. "Each year we've gotten more and more parity. It used to be all the [tournament] semifinals went into overtime. Now, it's the quarterfinals and even the first round. I've been seeded first and lost, and seeded eighth and won the whole thing."
Samuels' Quakers should be in the running for the AIS A Division title along with Garrison Forest, Bryn Mawr, Roland Park, Severn and Maryvale, but just about everyone is capable of jumping in there.
While the coaches say the race is close, most give the tiniest edge to Garri
son Forest, based on the Grizzlies' sensational 1994.
The Grizzlies enjoyed a rare unbeaten season going 11-0-3 and winning the A Division tournament title with a 2-0 win over Bryn Mawr. Their defense was almost unbeatable, allowing just three goals while the attack had tremendous balance.
The Grizzlies lost much of their defense, including All-Metro back Tina Schroeter, the Baltimore City/County Player of the Year, but they return one of the area's top goalies in All-Metro second-teamer Jacque Weitzel. The attack should not suffer with the return of three powerful forwards.
The challenge for All-Metro Co-Coach of the Year Micul Ann Morse is to keep the pressure off as the Grizzlies attempt to repeat their title.
"I'm going to do my best to make them feel that they don't have to live up to that," said Morse, in her 14th season at Garrison. "I want all of us to work on writing our own history and not trying to reread the same one, because that's futile. These kids want to do their own thing."