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One of the closest girls soccer races in the area is shaping up in the Baltimore County public schools while McDonogh will make a run at supremacy in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference.

Loch Raven and defending county champ Hereford are the early favorites in the county league, with Eastern Tech and Parkville not far off the pace. Dulaney, Franklin and Perry Hall start a few lengths back but have the potential to make up ground or, at least, play the spoiler.

The Raiders and the Bulls are about as close as they can get at the top of the pack, but the Raiders can claim the smallest of edges. They won the last meeting -- a 4-2 regional finale last fall that propelled Loch Raven to a share of the state Class 2A title.

Two weeks earlier, the Bulls had slipped past Loch Raven, 2-1, in overtime, to take the county championship.

The race could be that close once again.

"It's going to be tough, but it's going to be a good year," said Raiders coach Mike Parker, last season's Baltimore City/County Coach of the Year.

"We tell our kids every day that everybody is coming after us and not to get overconfident. Part of our job is to keep them focused and this team is focused. They want to win the state championship again."

However, any possibility of a Loch Raven-Hereford showdown will have to wait until the end of the season. With the Raiders in the county's Division I and Hereford in Division II, they cannot meet unless both win their divisions and advance to the county title game on Oct. 24.

In the meantime, the Raiders face their toughest competition from Eastern Tech, Dulaney and Franklin within the division and John Carroll, Notre Dame Prep and Mercy in non-league games.

They lost just three starters and return a potent offense that had 56 assists on 66 goals as well as a stingy defense.

Forward Gina Ruocco returns after a 13-goal season. Midfielder Christin Krejcik, who had eight goals and 12 assists, also returns.

Fullback Laurie Goon, sweeper Theresa Lancelotta and goalie Molly Rogers return to a defense that shut out a potent Middletown team in last year's state final.

In Division II, Hereford's greatest challenge should come from Parkville, with rebuilding Perry Hall a dark horse.

Last season, the Bulls set a school single-season record for goals with 96. They return 80 percent of that firepower.

The Bulls lost just two starters and return the county league's premier striker in Hollis Botti, who contributed 22 goals and seven assists last season. Botti suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament six months ago but should be cleared to play before the Bulls' first game at Dulaney tomorrow.

Heather Bell will give the Bulls a boost in the backfield after missing the entire 1999 season with a torn ACL. Marking back Lauren Carls also returns.

Sarah Stoltz will be the central cog in the Bulls' game, having emerged as a stellar central midfielder a year ago.

"The key for us is being healthy," said Bulls coach Steve Power. "If Hollis and Heather are healthy, we'll be dynamite."

At Eastern Tech, coach Wendy Butz returns all but four starters from a talented, young team that caught opponents by surprise last season. They advanced to the state Class 3A final before falling to River Hill, 4-1. The Mavericks started last season unranked but rose to No. 11 after making their first appearance in the state tournament.

The Mavs have an exceptional forward line in Stephanie Gutowski (11 goals, 5 assists), Valerie Cushing (14, 6) and Laura Shearer (10, 5), who moves up from the midfield. Stellar backs Jaime Stimmel and Beth Thomas also return.

At Parkville, the Knights (14-3-1) return all but three players for new boss Lori Brewer, last year's JV coach.

The Knights, who fell, 3-1, to Westminster in the state Class 4A final, bring back strikers Kristen Habicht (18, 8) and Carie Reider (3, 6). All-city/county goalie Heather Rock as well as fullback Stacy Anastasia return to a defensive unit that notched 11 shutouts and allowed just 11 goals the entire season.

Franklin coach George Wagner is rebuilding but returns top-notch midfielder Brandi Sproul (7, 6) as well as striker Jessica Kleiner and defenders Lynnea Finch and Betsy Priest.

The Indians (9-2-4), who were knocked out of the regional playoffs by Eastern Tech, also have several freshmen who could make an impact and boast more depth than in recent years.

Perry Hall finished 7-7 last season but lost a lot of close games, including an overtime regional game to Parkville.

Despite graduating 10 players, coach Brad Kressman said he expects more scoring and better depth with a host of girls moving up from a strong JV. The Gators top returnees include sweeper Lindsay Lauenstein, fullback Katie McArty, defensive halfback Danielle Outen and forwards Molly McAffery and Johanna Xecominos.

In Baltimore County's Division III, four-time defending champ Western Tech is hoping to make a statement that would give them a boost into one of the county's stronger divisions next year.

The Wolverines finished 10-3 overall and 6-0 in the division in 1999. Even though they will be rebuilding, the Wolverines are unlikely to face much competition from the other teams in Division III, Milford Mill, Randallstown and Woodlawn.

Last year, coach Dave Howell's team went 4-2 against teams outside the division during the regular season and lost to Towson, 2-1, in the regional playoffs.

Among the top returning players, the Wolverines have striker Katie Myers (24 goals), sweeper Caroline Thomas and midfielder Gracie Lowe.

In the IAAM A Conference, 1999 tournament runner-up McDonogh is the most likely candidate to challenge preseason favorite St. Mary's.

Defending champ John Carroll, Notre Dame Prep and Mercy could also have a lot to say about who comes out on top of the state's toughest league.

McDonogh graduated some impressive players including all-city/county Player of the Year Lisa Zanti, who scored 27 goals and had 19 assists. Still, the Eagles return 13 veterans, including all-city/county players Ali Andrzejewski and Jeannetta McGettigan, who combined for 41 goals last season.

The Eagles, who lost, 1-0, to John Carroll in last year's tournament championship, have no glaring weaknesses, and there are talented youngsters ready to step into every spot vacated by a graduate.

Defensively, three all-city/county picks --Jamie Hupp, Katie Nelson and junior goalie Mariel Wilner -- return to a unit that allowed just eight goals in its final 17 games.

Eagles coach Maurice Boylan Jr., whose team lost only to nationally ranked foes last season, expects his younger players, especially versatile Mary Beth Creed, another potentially big scorer, to step up and fill the gaps.

"We can fill Z's scoring with Ali, Jeannetta and Mary Beth," said Boylan, "but our greatest attribute is depth. I kept 21 players and that's the most I've ever kept."

At Notre Dame Prep, youth will provide a tremendous boost for the Blazers, who lost 1-0 to John Carroll in last year's tournament semifinal.

Coach Mark Deaton picked up perhaps the top two freshmen to debut in the county this season, Kayce Blandford and Zoey Bouchelle. Striker Blandford is an Olympic Development Program Under-14 regional pool player while center halfback Bouchelle, a regional pool player a year ago, missed this past ODP season with a broken arm.

The Blazers graduated three top players but the youngsters should fill those voids along with senior fullback Megan Targarona, who missed the1999 season with a torn ACL. Striker Amy Alecci and goalkeeper Lauren Stone lead an already solid returning contingent.

Maryvale also has some top players in striker Stephanie Sybert, defender Blair Boehm and keeper Megan Huether. But new coach Reza Kaliush's Lions, coming off a .500 season, may have a tough climb against the A Conference's talent-laden top four.

In the B Conference, defending champion Mt. Carmel may face its toughest battle from two teams who drop down from the A Conference -- Bryn Mawr and Roland Park.

"We played Roland Park last year and it was close, but we lost 3-1," said Mt. Carmel coach Steve Herpel. "And we have never beaten Bryn Mawr. This could be a very competitive division. We have 12 teams and the top six could be very close."

The Cougars, who finished 16-4-2 and did not lose a game to a B Conference foe last season, edged Severn in a shootout to win the tournament finale. Severn could also contend again as could St. John's-Prospect Hall.

Although the Cougars have a few holes to fill, they return a strong, veteran group up the middle in striker Keri Weber, center halfback Sarah Bitter and center defender Alanna Simmons.

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