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Spring Preview: Scanning the states

The high school spring season is under way in a couple of states, so in advance of the POWERADE FAB 50 preseason rankings which debut Monday, ESPNHS is offering this list of top projected programs:

Who’s No. 1?

Any talk about No. 1 usually starts with the preseason No. 1 teams in the traditionally strong states such as Georgia and Virginia. However, this year’s preseason No. 1 could hail from Alabama, South Carolina or Washington.

Vestavia Hills (Ala.) is coming off a 30-1 season and is tabbed as the clear preseason favorite in Alabama. Marshall commit Jack Hopkins, who scored 37 goals last year, and goalkeeper Marvin Castellanos highlight the list of talented returners.

Wando (Mount Pleasant, S.C.), the defending South Carolina Class 4A champ, is loaded with high-end talent. Juniors Hamilton Carlin (South Carolina) and Christian Jablonski (College of Charleston) -- who combined for all three of the team’s state final goals in last year’s title over Irmo -- have already committed to NCAA Division I programs.

Beamer (Federal Way, Wash.) could be the surprise pick from the West. Beamer went 16-1-3 last season and projects to return a lineup that includes Ike Crook, a junior who has committed to the College of Charleston, and Austin Sweeney, a senior who has signed with Seattle University.

As for Georgia and Virginia, St. Pius (Atlanta), the defending POWERADE FAB 50 national champion, and Blacksburg (Va.) are not in their state’s large-school playoff bracket but may be the strongest teams in the state to start the season.

Scanning the states

Alabama: After favored Vestavia Hills, Spain Park (Hoover, Ala.), Mountain Brook (Ala.) and Huntsville (Ala.) figure to be the main challengers. Daphne (Ala.), Auburn (Ala.) and Grissom (Huntsville, Ala.) are teams to watch.

Alaska: Juneau Douglas (Juneau, Alaska), the defending champ, graduated 11 seniors from last year’s squad, opening the door for a program such as South Anchorage (Anchorage, Alaska) or Dimond (Anchorage, Alaska) to emerge.

Arkansas: Searcy (Ark.) and Little Rock Catholic (Little Rock, Ark.) are the larger school defending state champions and are easy calls as favorites again this year.

Georgia: Georgia and Virginia, by far, offer the most individual talent among the spring-playing states. In fact, nearly 10 percent of all Class of 2012 NCAA Division I-bound players hail from Georgia and Virginia. However, unlike states where the talent is grouped at handful of schools, Georgia’s elite are spread around the state. St. Pius (Atlanta), with seven returning starters, Lassiter (Marietta, Ga.), Starr’s Mill (Fayetteville, Ga.), Brookwood (Snellville, Ga.) and Collins Hill (Suwanee, Ga.) are the preseason favorites. Since play has started in Georgia, Centennial (Roswell, Ga.), Wheeler (Marietta, Ga.) and Woodward Academy (College Park, Ga.) have emerged, as well.

Iowa: Konor Trannoris and Eric Williams, who combined for 28 goals, return for perennial frontrunner Valley (West Des Moines, Iowa). Iowa City West (Iowa City, Iowa) and Johnston (Iowa) are tabbed as state title contenders, as well, by coaches in Iowa.

Nebraska: Creighton Prep (Omaha, Neb.) is coming off a perfect showing in 2011 and remains the favorite as leading scorer Matt Pritchard is expected to return. Grand Island (Neb.) and Lincoln East (Lincoln, Neb.) figure to be title challengers.

Oklahoma: The balance of power has shifted toward Tulsa in Oklahoma, leaving Jenks (Okla.) and Union (Tulsa, Okla.), with Cristian Mata, as early favorites. Norman (Okla.), from the Oklahoma City region, figured to be in the running but recently lost a preseason match to an up-and-coming Stillwater (Okla.) program. Stillwater also handed defending champ Broken Arrow (Okla.) a preseason setback.

South Carolina: Wando is the clear favorite, but no conversation of top teams in the Palmetto State would be complete without mentioning Irmo (Columbia, S.C.). This perennial power has seven seniors committed to college programs. Independent school defending champ Cardinal Newman (Columbia, S.C.) features two of the state’s top players in Nestor Jaramillo (Wofford) and Koty Millard (South Carolina), but will it have the depth to compete with the state’s 4A programs? J.L. Mann (Greenville, S.C.) is being tossed around by state coaches as a potential Class 4A title contender.

Tennessee: Last year, the large school state semifinalists were a group of schools that either had never reached the state semifinals or simply had not been factors in recent years. Expect another equally surprising year in Tennessee in 2012. The preseason favorites are Christian Brothers (Memphis, Tenn.), which has trouble winning the state final, Christian Academy of Knoxville (Knoxville, Tenn.) and Knoxville Catholic (Knoxville, Tenn.). Bearden (Knoxville, Tenn.), Science Hill (Johnson City, Tenn.), Houston (Germantown, Tenn.) and Father Ryan (Nashville, Tenn.) could be contenders, as well.

Utah: Brighton (Salt Lake City, Utah) gets the nod as preseason favorite based on more returning all-state performers than Viewmont (Bountiful, Utah) and defending state champ Alta (Sandy, Utah).

Virginia: Graduation has finally caught up with perennial power Frank Cox (Virginia Beach, Va.), but this Group AAA program remains the team to beat locally. In Richmond, Cosby (Midlothian, Va.), which featured last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year Luis Rendon, and Deep Run (Glen Allen, Va.) return with solid lineups. In Northern Virginia, the sleeper could be Osbourn Park (Manassas, Va.), which has three NCAA Division I-bound players, if they opt to play high school soccer this spring. Herndon (Va.), with Army commit EK Korvah, George Washington commit Dominic Gallelli and Radford commit Patrick McLaughlin, will be among the favorites in a very strong region. Defending champion North Stafford (Stafford, Va.) won’t catch anyone off guard this year, despite graduating several key players. As long as Pa Lamin Fofana returns, North Stafford will be a title challenger. In Group AA, perennial state challenger Blacksburg (Va.) returns 18 players – nine starters -- from last year’s team, which finished in the POWERADE FAB 50 Top 10. Geinda and Garland Smith, the team’s leading scorers in 2011, return after producing 35 goals last season. Radford signee Eli Betz returns to Blacksburg this year after spending last year in Germany. Group AA champion Jefferson Forest (Forest, Va.) gets beefed up by a pair of foreign exchange students.

Washington: This is the most difficult states to track in the spring, simply because there are no invitational tournaments during the season and very little play outside of league matches. Several team’s true colors are not displayed until the state tournament. However, defending champ Eastlake (Sammamish, Wash.), Beamer (Federal Way, Wash.), Bellarmine Prep (Tacoma, Wash.) and Snohomish (Wash.) appear to have the most returning talent based on last year’s all-league teams.

Wyoming: Laramie (Wyo.) was upset in last year’s state tournament but returns as the favorite in 2012.