The bar has officially been raised.
After going seven years without a boys basketball state champion, Howard County not only broke through on the season's biggest stage last winter, but made a little history in the process. Centennial and Oakland Mills each capped thrilling postseason runs with titles, marking the first time in county history that two of its teams have hoisted championship trophies at the end of the same year.
Now the question is, what can the league do for an encore?
"We've had someone down there now (at the state Final Four) almost every year for the last 10 years. So while, no doubt, last year was really special with Oakland Mills and us both winning, I don't think it was a fluke by any means," said Centennial coach Chad Hollwedel. "It's going to be very interesting this year, in that there appears to be a lot of balance — several teams with a lot of talent and a lot of potential."
Hollwedel's Eagles, coming off an 18-1 record in league play and a county title to go with the state crown, certainly are in the mix of teams capable of ending up on top again come the end of the season.
The team lost a pair of all-county guards in Chad Strothers and Isaiah White, but do return one of the county's top forwards in senior Tom Brown.
As a leader this season, Brown — who averaged 12.2 points and 8.5 rebounds a game on his way to making second-team all county as a junior — says he and his teammates got a taste of the ultimate prize last winter and are hungry to try and repeat.
"The expectation is always to win, so that's what we're going to try to do again this year," he said. "We've got some new talent, some new bodies out there, but we will all gel together and make it work."
Oakland Mills, who had its own breakthrough campaign last year en route to the program's first state championship since 1990, are in a similar position to that of the Eagles. The team lost a couple of all-county standouts in Will Robinson Jr. and Mamadou Ndiaye, but return an experienced core headlined by senior point guard Daniel Kiely.
Kiely, who is the only returning first-team all-county player this winter on the heels of posting averages of 11.9 points and 5.1 assists a game, says he hasn't sensed any pressure this preseason on the team to match last year's run.
"It's more excitement … we're not really feeling pressure at all. We're all relaxed," Kiely said. "We all basically grew up together so there's not a lot of nervousness or pressure. We're just trying to have fun."
While featuring talented rosters, the Scorpions and Eagles figure to have plenty of company when it comes to this year's race to the top.
No team in the preseason has been more intriguing than Hammond, which is in the rare position of boasting the kind of talent to go from last place to competing for first the next season.
With three impact transfers that all averaged over nine points per game a season ago — Jarvis Doles, Terrell Lamar and Brandon Willis — to go along with a returning double-digit scorer in Matt Johnson, the Golden Bears boast more proven offensive firepower than any other county team. On top of that, Hammond coach Mike Salapata says that quartet of seniors are hard workers that are setting a great example for the rest of the team.
"There is always a bit of challenge when you have so many different pieces coming together, but with this group it hasn't been nearly as much as one would think. And that's a testament to these guys," Salapata said. "They are all really good kids, who want to win. They aren't as worried about the individual accolades as much as the overall success of the team, which as a coach is exactly what you want to see."
Willis, coming off a junior season at Atholton where he averaged 15.9 points a game, is the county's leading returning scorer.
Elsewhere, Reservoir has quietly become one of the county's most consistent programs under coach Mike Coughlan. The Gators have posted three straight seasons with at least 14 overall wins and, while the loss of first-team all-county star Seth Henry hurts, they do bring back a handful of players with significant game experience and time in Coughlan's system.
Atholton is another team that was above .500 last winter and is now thinking big. The Raiders, even without Willis, have nine seniors on their roster and four of them averaged at least three points a game as juniors.
As for a sleeper, nearly every county coach lists Howard as a team to keep an eye on. The Lions may have finished at 7-12 in league play in 2014-15, but they lost six of those games by eight points or less and there are three players back from that squad that averaged in double-figures scoring — DJ Dawkins, George Greene and Bryce Shuart.
While on the court talent is plentiful, there's also an abundance of experienced coaches with championship-level pedigrees. In fact, of the 12 public-school coaches this winter, seven have led a team to at least the state semifinals during their head-coaching careers.
The only new face on the coaching front this winter is David Evans at Glenelg, who takes over for Jansen McMillan. And, while he has never taken a team to states as a head coach, he was on the coaching staff at Centennial when the program made back-to-back trips to the state final four in 2011 and 2012.
The last two years he has been an assistant, working alongside Long Reach grad Mike Smelkinson, at Howard Community College and Harford Community College.
As for other new things to keep an eye on, the classifications for the region playoffs have been shaken up again.
Howard remains the county's lone 4A school, grouped along with a trio of Baltimore City and Montgomery County teams in Section II of the 4A North region. Marriotts Ridge and Oakland Mills, meanwhile, are the lone 2A schools and find themselves in Section II of 2A West with five Carroll County schools.
The rest of the county is in the 3A East region. Atholton and Hammond are in Section II with a mix of teams from a trio of counties that includes Chesapeake, Northeast, J.M. Bennett and Stephen Decatur. The remaining seven county squads make up Section I of 3A East, including Centennial and Reservoir, which have won the region crown four of the last five years.
Among the private schools, Glenelg Country has its sights set on making a move up the standings in the MIAA A Conference. The Dragons graduated just one senior from last year's team that won five league games, and they boast a high-level Division I recruit in junior Anthony Longpre. The versatile 6-foot-9 forward averaged over 15 points and seven rebounds a game a season ago en route to being named as a MIAA A Conference All-Star.
Glenelg Country coach Kevin Quinlan says the supporting cast, particularly a much-improved Isaiah Burnett, is extremely talented as well and has the potential to make a lot of noise.
"I'm super excited. I feel like we are very tight-knit family that has had a chance to grow together," Quinlan said. "These guys really seized their opportunities in the weight room and in the gym during the offseason and you can see the improvements."
Chapelgate, meanwhile, is in a slightly rebuilding year after graduating a pair of all-county guys — Matthew Frierson and Malik Grandy — that each averaged more than 18 points a game. Still, with a sharpshooter like Earl Mitchell at guard and a couple intriguing big guys on the interior, the Yellowjackets figure to be competitive in the MIAA B Conference.
With the season starting for the public schools on Dec. 4, and the private schools already underway, we are releasing the team-by-team breakdowns four at a time leading up to opening night.
The schedule is below: