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Fallston has had all year to think about last year's Class 3A state championship game. One win from the school's first state title since 1992, the Cougars ran into a buzzsaw called River Hill and suffered an 8-0 whitewashing.

"Just about everything that could have gone wrong went wrong for us that night," Fallston coach Len Petrey said.

Until then, little had gone wrong for the Cougars, who reeled off 14 straight wins and secured their 13th Harford County title.

The Cougars would love to duplicate last season's success - and get another shot at a state title. To do that, they must generate the offense provided last year by all-state forward Jason Ruzek (school-record 20 goals), who graduated. The Cougars return two of the county's top players in midfielders Kevin Ruzek, Jason's younger brother, and Mickey Sloman. Seniors T. J. Frendak and Mike Tress solidify the defense.

C. Milton Wright returns two proven scorers as the Mustangs set out to dethrone Fallston, the only team to beat the Mustangs in county play last year. Senior Eddie Resende scored six goals last year and is described as "a terrific finisher" by one rival coach. Brian Tully had a team-best eight goals last season as a freshman. Dan Lader patrols the midfield, and Dan Thrailkill leads a veteran defense.

At Bel Air, Dominic Rose moves up from the JV program to replace longtime Bobcats coach Bill Jefferson. Midfielder Shane Justis and fullback Tyler Nowicki are returning all-county players, and Mike Ceskey controls tempo from his center midfield position.

New coaches also are on the job at North Harford and Joppatowne.

Greg Murrell has been elevated from assistant coach to head coach at North Harford, and he must rebuild a lineup hit hard by graduation. Four seniors return, including starting keeper John Lawrence, but the young Hawks will be tested by a schedule that includes seven teams ranked in last year's Sun Top 15 poll. Tony Ridelbauer looks to jump-start the Joppatowne program.

If Aberdeen can stay healthy, the Eagles could be a sleeper. Barry Hewitt and Jeff Grubb return to the midfield and junior Lane Crothers is a scoring threat. Senior keeper Maurice Patterson will be seeing his first varsity action.

Edgewood returns fullback Craig Nearhood, an all-county choice last year as a sophomore.

Harford Tech suffered heavy graduation losses. Fullback Sean Sullivan and forward Doug Bittner are the only seniors. Chris Kropp heads a large junior class.

Among private schools, John Carroll made strides last year in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association. After failing to win a league game in 1998, the Patriots upset Loyola and McDonogh early last season en route to a 4-9-2 record. To continue that progress, the Patriots must improve an offense that scored just nine goals a year ago. Mike DiIorio and Brandon Hooper anchor a strong backfield.

Harford Christian last year finished runner-up in the Maryland Association of Christian Schools for the second straight season, but graduation has taken a heavy toll.

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