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Only one goal separated St. Paul's from the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference tournament title last fall. With a little more experience and a solid core of returning players, the Gators should make a run at the championship again.

Their biggest challenges likely will come from defending champ Bryn Mawr and Roland Park while Notre Dame Prep, Garrison Forest and upstart McDonogh are all capable of rising to the top.

The Gators, who fell 2-1 to the Mawrtians in last season's final, return 13 players including two All-Metro second-teamers - forward Elaine Belitsos and back Molly Ahearn.

Also returning are defender Allison Schindler, midfielder Ingrid Goldberg and forward Sarah Sloane. Perhaps the biggest hole created by graduation was in the goal, but Elizabeth Jordan has moved up from JV to fill that gap.

Gators second-year coach Heather O'Neill is cautiously optimistic as she prepares the Gators for their season opener Saturday vs. North Carroll at the Towson Tournament.

"We still have a lot to learn, a lot to work on," said O'Neill, "but I'm pretty confident. We have experience, which we didn't have last year. It's just a matter of getting through without injuries and focusing when we need to focus."

Also returning 13 players is Notre Dame Prep. Coach Kathleen Gower's Blazers could be poised to boost their .500 record with a senior-laden team that has been together for several years.

Kristen Miller and Maggie Huether return to the Blazers' defense along with goalie Meredith Phillips. Kristen Zatina is back on the line.

McDonogh hasn't been a contender for a while, but the Eagles appear to be the up-and-coming team in the A Conference. Coach Katie Mitchell lost just five players and has 10 seniors back from a team that went 7-8-3 a year ago.

The Eagles look especially strong on defense with the return of two second-team all-city/county players, goalie Sabrina Gill (86 percent save rate) and defender Gina Zanella. Emily Berlanstein should be a top scorer while Lauren Moag and Lexi Poklemba bolster the midfield.

Most of the Eagles have played together since middle school and Mitchell likes the chemistry as well as the talent.

Only time will tell whether Garrison Forest can remain in the race after losing a large contingent of seniors. Coach Micul Ann Morse's Grizzlies return seven players from a team that went 10-4-5 and finished the season ranked sixth.

There's a lot of promise in the players moving up from JV, but it will take a few weeks to see how well the newcomers fit. The veterans include defenders Jody Mayer and Lauren Misera, forward Erica Chan and forward/midfielder Rachel Sclar.

At Maryvale, new coach Renee Prispoop, varsity assistant for the last two years, lost eight starters. A lot of juniors will move up from the Lions' unbeaten JV team.

While much of the attack is rebuilding around Kelly Freitag, the Lions return top defender Maggie Rini and midfielder Cassidy Zappacosta.

Park coach Barbara Purkey is looking to move back into contention this season with 11 returning players.

The Bruins (3-8-3) are still young but they could surprise a few opponents. Midfielders Danielle Cameron and Kris Hogan, forward Candace Maslan and goalie Betsy Shapiro provide a solid foundation.

In the IAAM B Conference, Lutheran and St. Timothy's could find themselves in a tight race with last year's tournament runner-up Glenelg Country School.

Lutheran (3-6-3) lost 12 players to graduation but brings back forwards Rachel Pfiefer and Laura Hughes as well as midfielder Erin Ewalt and Erin Fitzgibbons.

The Baltimore County public schools race is also shaping up to be a close one.

Defending county champ Catonsville graduated 13 players, leaving a lot of questions, especially in key positions. Runner-up Perry Hall also took a big hit from graduation.

With those programs losing so many veterans, the slightest early edge falls to Hereford, which won four straight county crowns before surrendering the title last year. Dulaney should be close behind while Loch Raven and Towson could pull a few surprises in the county's tough Heron Division.

Tammy Mundie's Hereford squad lost 11 seniors from a team that reached the state Class 1A semifinals, but the last time the Bulls lost that many players was two years ago, when they went on to share the state title.

The Bulls appear strongest on defense with goalie Christina Restivo and back Erin Woods returning. Midfielder Lindsay Roberts will control the transition game and spark the offense.

Even though the Bulls seem to have reloaded quickly, Mundie is taking nothing for granted.

"This is going to be a close race," she said. "There could be a lot of flip-flopping. The teams are so close that everybody could be beating everybody else. It would be hard to go undefeated."

At Dulaney, coach Cathy Fisher, who took the Lions (8-3-3) to the state Class 4A semifinals in 1998, returns as does most of the team. With 13 players back, the Lions should make a strong run at the county crown.

They will rely on Nicole Govignon and Lindsey White for scoring while Sarah Creighton returns to the midfield and Erin Jordan is back in the goal.

Loch Raven also will have a balanced team for new coach Jessica Rossano. An experienced group of upperclassmen, the Raiders top returnees include midfielder Katie Fox and forward Donna Carpenter.

Towson coach Holly West graduated seven players from the Generals' 7-7-1 squad. Her top returnees include midfielders Emily Kolarik and Emma Leslie and versatile Whitney Mershon.

Don't look for Catonsville (14-2) and Perry Hall (8-4-1) to fall too far off the pace.

Kathy Schuyler's Comets lost most of their leadership but return a solid core in midfielders Annie Davis, Kristen Brown and Sarah Slafkosky, forward Gayle Bradshaw and sweeper Sarah Starsoneck.

Perry Hall graduated 10 but also brings back a strong core of seniors for new coach Chastin Crook, a former Gators All-Metro player. Forward Kathy Baran, goalie Jill Baran, midfielder Jessica Dalton and defender Gina Bridges all return.

An equally tight race could be brewing in the county's Mallard Division.

Defending champ Kenwood, which edged Carver A&T;, 2-1, in the division playoff, faces a challenge from Carver again as well as Eastern Tech and Dundalk.

Stacey Kalwa's Bluebirds return 10 seniors from a team that went 8-3 last season.

The defense - backs Rachel Dudok, Lauren Weeks, Kate Dranbauer and goalie Krista Mazziot - returns intact. There is also a lot of scoring potential, led by Christine Schmidt.

At Carver, coach Denise Junkerman returns all but four starters. Despite a small squad of 13, the Wildcats are determined to push the Bluebirds again for the title.

The Wildcats have a core of returning seniors in scoring threats Lauren Calhoun and Leah Dabrowski as well as center midfielder Leisa Rothlisberger and back Melanie Braslazsky.

Eastern Tech (8-7) lost just two starters and brings back a strong attack, led by Kristina Grahe, Megan Crist and Tara Haislip. Coach Sandy Borns' defense also looks solid in front of goalie Nicole Steagall. Heidi Cornell leads a rebuilt midfield.

At Dundalk, coach Danielle Grzebein's Owls (7-4) lost just three players to graduation and has a lot more depth than last year. Midfielders Christie Trionfo and Amber Sowards anchor a strong midfield. Jessica Trojan is a top scoring threat.

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