Last fall was a season of close calls among the elite in Anne Arundel County girls soccer.
St. Mary's lost a tough 3-2 overtime decision at McDonogh in an Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference semifinal that took a second day to complete. For a second straight year, Severna Park was eliminated by the eventual state champ, this time against Westminster in a shootout after 100 minutes of scoreless play that decided the Class 4A East region. And South River also fell a goal short in their region final against River Hill, which went on to capture the Class 3A state crown.
All three teams - shuffling aside - should be right there again.
Severna Park lost its top scorer, its midfield general and the county's most thorough marking back of a year ago, but returns a surplus of offense led by junior Erin Dubina (12 goals, 21 assists) and got a pleasant surprise when the Sample sisters, Kerie and Sarah, transfered in from St. Mary's.
The whopping 136-goal output Severna Park produced in each of the past two seasons appears attainable once again this year, leaving one question mark.
"If we jell on defense, we'll be a major factor in the state," said Severna Park coach Chuck Seivert.
Enter Kerry York.
The senior goalkeeper, a regional Olympic Development Program pool player, is primed to shine.
"Last year, our defense was so strong, she got overlooked at times. This year, she can show everybody just how good she is. Kerry is just a leader, the hardest-working goalie I've ever seen," said Seivert.
Minus the Sample sisters, St. Mary's still remains loaded all over the field and on the bench, enough to place the Saints atop the metro area poll at the start and make them the early favorite in the high-powered IAAM A Conference.
Melissa Anderson, Nicole D'Angelo and Athena Gramates are the senior leaders with Kelly Hammond, Ashly Kennedy and Mary Key heading the list of talented underclassmen.
"As a team, we'll be very competitive. Whether this is the year, we'll have to stay healthy and you always need a little bit of luck to have a chance," said St. Mary's coach Jerry Tobin.
At South River, the coaches change, but the success likely remains.
For the fourth straight season, the Edgewater school has a new girls soccer coach. Fred Brocklander, a former Major League Baseball umpire who has spent 35 years coaching and officiating a number of sports, inherits a talented group that will look to senior Lindsey Roche for goals and fellow senior Lauren McKeever for defense.
Brocklander's philosophy should fit in just fine.
"We're going to bring the lunch box with the thermos and go to work. I'm impressed with the speed and love the attitude. If we can keep up the intensity and keep everyone on the same page, we'll be tough," he said.
The Seahawks handed Severna Park its only loss of the regular season last fall before the Falcons had the final say in the county championship game. And while those two remain the teams to beat among the public schools, the county has a strong second tier of programs looking to emerge.
Chesapeake managed a 9-5 season despite scoring just 15 goals last fall. Juniors Kristen Wheeler and Laura Callicoat will help keep the defense stingy and coach Jerry McBee will switch to a three-man front to encourage more scoring.
Putting the ball in the net shouldn't be a problem for Broadneck, which went from 4-9-2 in 1998 to 9-5 last season. The Bruins lost nine players to graduation, but return scoring threats Stephanie Jones and Desi Colon. Lori Southard, coming off a fine first season in goal, will anchor the defense.
At Arundel, six starters return from last year's 9-6-1 team, led by senior striker Denise Casey and a handful of talented underclassmen. Juniors Casey Russell and Rachel Moreland will play key roles with freshman Melissa Hornfeck, an ODP pool player, expected to make an immediate impression
"I think we can put up a good fight with anybody in the county," said Arundel coach Tom Degner.
Old Mill tries to recover from its first losing season in 14 years under coach Bruce Sponsler. The Patriots finished with a 5-9-1 mark in 1999, going 1-3-1 in overtime matches. Their defense, led by seniors Liz Corbett, Jen Hines and Ellen Sroka, will keep them in games while the offense looks for a consistent scorer.
Taking Broadneck into overtime and losing to Chesapeake by a goal last fall showed Southern is getting closer. Seniors Holly Sis, Kristin Thomas, Caroline Gross and keeper Colleen Welch are back for the Bulldogs, who went from 2-12 in 1998 to 5-9 last year under coach John Sis.
A familiar face takes over at Northeast, with Marianne Shultz adding to her softball coaching duties.
Elsewhere, North County will count on senior goalkeeper Caitlin Burns, who played a major role in the Knights' first softball state crown last spring, and Annapolis hopes senior striker Kristy Dirks, a scoring machine in lacrosse, can put the bigger ball in the net, too.
Returning to the private schools, Annapolis Area Christian, which went 14-0-1 last season, will chase a fourth straight Tri-State crown. The Eagles have nine starters back from last year's team that finished 14-0-1, but will have to replace their all-time leading scorer, Amy Hendricks, who had 32 goals as a senior.
Spalding -- minus first-team All-Metro keeper Jasmin Alter and leading scorer Shelley Suliivan -- will count on a strong junior cast to stay competitive in the IAAM A Conference. Severn, runner-up in the IAAM B Conference last season, should be right back in the mix once again.