Two Howard County teams reached state championship games last season, but graduations and several coaching changes in the county leave a question mark as to this season's favorite.
Five of the 12 schools in Howard County will have new head coaches, and seven different teams were chosen to finish in the top five of the conference by coaches that submitted preseason forms.
Atholton, River Hill, Wilde Lake, Howard, Long Reach, Centennial and even Oakland Mills have been selected to finish toward the top of the county this season.
"I think on any given night we could have one team beat another team. You're going to have to be tremendously prepared to win in Howard County," said new Wilde Lake head coach Michael Harrison. "[The county is] more unpredictable with the coaching changes. You can't put a finger on what it's going to be from week to week."
Harrison will be Wilde Lake's second head coach, replacing the now-retired Doug DuVall, who guided the program to 308 wins and five state titles in his 37-year career.
"It hasn't been too much of an adjustment so far," Harrison said of the switch from assistant to head coach. "I've worked on both sides of the ball. The first 17 years I coached, I was the defensive coordinator, then the last few years I've been on offense."
Wilde Lake made the Class 3A state championship game last year, losing to Westlake 13-0. Quarterback Danny March and running back Jarrell Epps both graduated, taking with them more than 2,200 yards of total offense.
Harrison returns two defensive starters and seven on offense. The offense will revolve around running backs E.J. Gilman and Christian
Last season, Hough rushed for more than 1,000 yards, and Gilman had the highest yards-per-carry average of any Wildecat. Gilman was the team's second-leading tackler on defense, recording more than 100.
"We're going to have to grow up early," Harrison said of this year's team. "We feel like we have some really good kids stepping in. Our skill positions will be really good, but we have some work to do on the line."
In addition to Wilde Lake's change, Oakland Mill, Reservoir, Atholton and Hammond will also have new coaches. Howard and Mount Hebron's head coaches will enter their second seasons.
Kyle Schmitt takes over an Atholton team that has University of Maryland commitment Matt
Howard is coming off a 7-3 playoff season in Bruce Strunk's first year as head coach. A.J. Bonavitacola is a Baltimore Touchdown Club Super 22 member and was named a second-team all-Howard County selection as a running back last season.
Hammond may be the most interesting school to keep an eye on this season.
In the offseason, the Golden Bears hired former Damascus head coach and three-time state champion Dan Makosy.
Makosy compiled a record of 102-20 in 10 years at Damascus. In that same time, Hammond went 21-79.
While a playoff berth might be expecting too much this season, more wins should come, and an optimist could see the Golden Bears winning five games for the first time since 2001.
On the other side of the coin is River Hill.
River Hill won its fifth straight Howard County championship and second straight Class 2A state championship last season and is riding a 28-game winning streak.
The Hawks will have the challenge of replacing the graduated two-time consensus all-state player Michael
But River Hill will not be without talent this season. Kevin
River Hill moves back to Class 3A this season after spending the past two years in 2A. The last time the Hawks were in 3A they made the state championship game against Friendly.
River Hill has been the dominant team in Howard County for the past five years, has not lost a county game since Oct. 29, 2005, and has compiled a record of 41-1 since 2006.
Oakland Mills new head coach Jimmy DiPietro takes over a team that went 3-7 last season, but the junior varsity went 7-3, and the team will look to a solid group of juniors -- including an offensive line that has played together for the past two years -- to help push the Scorpions toward the upper half of Howard County.
Reservoir finished last season 5-5 and will have its first new head coach in five years as Bryan Cole takes over for Joe Lewis.
Glenelg went 4-6 last season, but returns seven starters on both offense and defense. Shannon
Long Reach is another team that will be vying to become one of the top teams in Howard County.
Last year the Lightning went 7-3 and return seven starters on both offense and defense. Javaugh Walker returns to the backfield and will be a three-year starter for head coach Pete Hughes. The Lightning finished the 2008 season by winning its last five games.
Centennial finished last season 4-6, and has not made the playoffs in more than 30 years, but there have been whispers about the Eagles being playoff contenders this season. Kyle
"I think this is the year we crack the playoffs," head coach Ken Senisi said. "Our line on both sides is coming back."
Mount Hebron went from 1-9 to 3-7 in Ross Hannon's first season as head coach, and the Vikings will return receivers Spencer Wilkins and Mike
Marriotts Ridge went 7-3 last season but will face the challenge of replacing receiver Kyle
ESPNRise encourages comments from its users. Leave a comment below. Mike Loveday covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com. Mike can be reached at mailto:Michael.Loveday@espn.com">Michael.Loveday@espn.com