Is this the year Bel Air's reign ends? And if so, who steps forward to wear the crown as Harford County champion?
Those are the two pressing questions as the season begins, and the answers are anything but clear.
Bel Air has won three straight county titles, but the Bobcats have been hit hard by graduation. Perennial contender Fallston is adjusting to a new coach. North Harford, a Class 2A state semifinalist last year, returns nine starters but must overcome the unexpected loss of one of its top scorers.
All this, along with improvement in the county's lower ranks, portends a competitive Harford County season this fall.
This much is certain: The title belongs to Bel Air until someone beats the Bobcats, which never happened in county play last year. But coach Bill Zimmerman has lost five starters and will be fielding one of his youngest teams. Senior Kristi Eyler, the county scoring leader as a sophomore, heads the attack, along with Colby Bugda, who started as a freshman last season. Senior sweeper Emily Neubeck will patrol the backfield in front of new goalkeeper Meredith Remus.
Bel Air handed Fallston both its losses last year, including a 2-1 overtime decision that ultimately decided the county title. Vern Brown moves up from the JV to coach the Cougars this season, and he welcomes back a veteran front line led by seniors Lauren O'Brien and Erica Neuser. Brown has scrapped last season's goalkeeping platoon and named Lauren Goodman the No. 1 keeper.
If North Harford can find a way to score, the Hawks could challenge for their first county title since 1986. Nine starters return from last year's 11-4-1 team, but Sarah Rousseau (10 goals, 15 assists in 1999) is not one of them; the would-be junior moved to Florida over the summer. Senior Tara Buecker, the Hawks' leading scorer as a freshman and sophomore, Monica Joines, Lisa Valle and Katie Knepp will shoulder the scoring load.
Defensively, the Hawks could be even stingier than last year, when they allowed 10 goals in 16 games. The top four fullbacks and top two goalkeepers all return.
C. Milton Wright is young but promising, and several freshman could start. All-county midfielder Monica Janowitz is one of only three seniors. Last year's top two scorers are back in Tina Autry and Megan Watkins. Christina Knight heads a strong freshman group, though she has been slowed by a preseason ankle injury.
Joppatowne also is young, but three of last year's top four scorers - Kris Tourville, Brianna Bohan and Lisa Kenney - are back for their senior seasons. Sophomore Katie Rodriguez, the younger sister of senior midfielder Ashley Rodriguez, takes over in goal.
Havre de Grace welcomes back all-county goalkeeper Lynne Ruchlewicz, but the Warriors need to provide more support than last year, when the overworked keeper made 123 saves.
Stacie Morris is the only starter back at Edgewood, 6-8-1 a year ago. Aberdeen, winless in county play last year, and Harford Tech, in just its second season, look to improve.
The best team in the county last season - and one of the best in the nation - was John Carroll, but the Harford County private school may be hard-pressed to repeat last year's 20-1-1 record that included the inaugural Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland championship and a No. 13 national ranking. Eight players are gone from that team, including The Sun Player of the Year Jen Biscoe, now at the University of Maryland. The Patriots return a veteran backfield but need to create scoring chances. Look for Shannon Seipp, an All-Metro marking back last year, to play more midfield this year and to factor in the Patriots' attack at times.