Linganore, Thomas Johnson looking for titles

Monocacy Valley Athletic League -- Piedmont Black Conference

Coming off an 8-2 season, Frederick fell to 3-7 in 2008, but according to coach Vince Ahearn, at least 10 players who were expected to be starters went down with injury at some point. Two key pieces will return this season in quarterback Deon Walker and center Mac Stephens. Frederick will face five teams that made last season's playoffs, including Tuscarora and Liberty in its first four games.

If DeMatha did not boast 10 players with Division I offers already, Linganore likely would be the preseason No. 1 team. The Lancers return several key starters from 2008's 13-1 Class 4A state runner-up team. Linganore coach Rick Conner boasts his share of Division I prospects, with Robbie Havenstein and Zack Zwinak being the most high profile. Returning at quarterback will be the tandem of Nick Marth and Ricky Conner. All but one offensive lineman returns to an offense that rushed for more than 2,500 yards last season, including Kyle Tucker and Kevin Saylor. What the Lancers lost is more than 1,000 yards and speedster Pat Balderson. Stepping up will be Kevin Myers, who rushed for more than 600 yards last season. The biggest challenge for Linganore will be the move down to Class 3A this season and the schedule it might face on a run to the championship game. Class 3A West boasts Montgomery County teams Damascus, Seneca Valley, Clarksburg and Quince Orchard, along with the MVAL's Tuscarora, which is coming off its best season in school history. The Lancers' final three games of the regular season are against Tuscarora, Thomas Johnson and Urbana.

Before 2008, Thomas Johnson coach Ben Wright told MDVarsity.com that his team was built for the 2009 season -- it was young, and many of the best players were juniors. The Patriots finished the 2008 season 6-5 and made the Class 4A North region semifinals. Now, the 2009 season is here, and it looks like Wright was right. Nine starters return to the offense and five to the defense. Wright, who enters his 24th year as coach at Thomas Johnson, said he has more seniors, 25, than he has ever had. Four players will battle for the quarterback position, but whoever lands that role will have the luxury of handing the ball to a Football Bowl Subdivision backfield of Nick Forbes and Jeremy Grove, both of whom also will lead the linebacking corps. Forbes is committed to California and Grove to East Carolina. Marquis Woodyard, the Class 4A 110- and 300-meter hurdle champion, will play corner and some receiver. D.J. Scott's younger brother DeAndre will play corner and receiver. Senior receiver and free safety Victor Walker holds an offer from Monmouth. The Patriots have several big games on this season's schedule, including Martinsburg (W.V.) and Fort Hill (Cumberland, Md.).

Tuscarora is coming off its best season in school history, on and off the field. The Titans finished 8-3 and made the playoffs for the first time. Off the field, Dominic Clarke committed to Ohio State and Jakarie Jackson committed to James Madison. Coach Sean Carey resigned, and assistant coach and former Walt Whitman head coach Dean Swink is taking over.

For Urbana, one of Maryland's more consistent programs, this offseason could be considered one of turmoil. Joe Polce, who had been the coach since 2005, resigned, and his replacement, Joe Connor, was not named until June. Do not expect much to change defensively for the Hawks. Connor was the defensive coordinator the past four years, and the Hawks return four players to that side of the ball. Offensively, Urbana will be more focused on short passes, with two-year starter Jesse Heon returning. Connor said the team does not have one star receiver but has several young players who have shown the ability to run good routes and should fit into the new offense.

MVAL -- Piedmont Blue Conference

Brunswick returns 10 starters (four on offense, six on defense) from the team that finished 3-7 in 2008, coach Pat Foster's first season. Foster said the team will be strong at linebacker with Nelson Swift returning from injury. Swift was leading the team in tackles with 62 when he went down early in the eighth game of last season. Kyle Romanek and Caleb Woullard also will help anchor the linebackers. Sophomore Ian Fisher who started the first two games of last season at wide receiver and then moved to quarterback but missed the last five games of the year due to injury, returns and is expected to help lead the offense.

Catoctin returns 11 starters from the team that finished 8-5 and made the Class 1A state semifinals last season. Coach Doug Williams said running back will be the team's strength, with juniors Austin Carter, Devon Patterson and Landon Routzan all getting the chance to carry the ball. Dylan May returns as a second-year starting quarterback, after throwing for more than 800 yards last season. Paul Barbour returns at linebacker, after recording 53 tackles last season. The offensive line will be young and will need to jell to open up the running game and protect May. The Cougars will have a mix of returning players and juniors, and Williams said the team could be faster than it was last season. "As far as talent goes, we have talent," Williams said. "Only time will tell if we get them to mix."

Walkersville has been knocking on the door the past few seasons. While the Lions have finished 3-7 in each of the past two seasons, they are a team no MVAL team overlooks each season. In 2008, the Lions lost by only six points to the Century team that made the Class 2A semifinals and lost by three in overtime to playoff-bound Tuscarora. This could be Walkersville's year. Four starters return to the offense and defense, including senior quarterback Jeremy Musselman, who was second in the Piedmont conference in passing with 1,131 yards and third with eight touchdowns. The Lions should have some speed in the offensive and defensive backfield. Junior running back Quentin Ezell burst onto the varsity scene late last season with a 237-yard, three touchdown game against South Hagerstown. Junior defensive back Jose Depadua won the Frederick County 100 meter and was second in the 200 meter.

The fate of Middletown's season might be determined early. The Knights face Century, a 2A state semifinalist in 2008, to open the season in a rematch of last year's Class 2A West region final. Middletown then takes on state power Linganore, 1A playoff team Boonsboro, 3A playoff squad Tuscarora and 4A layoff team Thomas Johnson in the first five weeks of the season. "If we come out of that early schedule and qualify for the 2A West playoffs, I feel we'll be a bonafide contender," Middletown coach Kevin Lynott said.

The Knights return six offensive staters and are solid in the skill positions. Defensively, Middletown returns four, including all-league defensive back Sam Glushakow. Other key players this season will include Koby Cavanaugh and Justin Boyer.

MVAL -- Chesapeake Conference

Century had not only its best season in school history in 2008, but also one of the best seasons in Carroll County in almost 30 years. The 2009 Knights return four players on offense, but the focus will be on Boston College commitment Josh Bordner at quarterback. Bordner threw for 2,212 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, earning all-state small-school first-team honors. Bordner will be looking for a new favorite receiver with the graduation of Luke Wright, who had 49 receptions and 17 touchdowns last season. New coach Jim Holzman will look to senior Bryan Kasper and junior Joey Trombeotta to fill Wright's role.

Francis Scott Key was more optimistic heading into last season, but that learning curve could turn into a few more wins this season. Coach Bill Hyson enters his third season and will make a few change. While the team will run the Wing-T offense, Hyson said it also will start to open up the passing game. The Eagles return seven offensive starters, including Derrick Petry, who could move from tight end to receiver to help the offense open up. Hyson returns three offensive linemen and said he expects this to be the team's strength this season, after being one of its weaknesses last in 2008. Defensively, the Eagles return five players, led by Buddy Ricketts at linebacker, who was second on the team in tackles last season.

After years of Liberty being a league nonfactor, Jeff Kent has built the Lions' program into an annual playoff contender. In fact, Liberty is coming off back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in school history. The Lions return six offensive and five defensive starters from a 7-4 squad. The key offensive returner is quarterback Geoff Suddath, who passed for more than 1,200 yards in the Lions' spread offense. The Lions have a strong linebacker crew in Jordan Weaver, Brad Miller and Jason Velnzia.

Manchester Valley opens this season with a junior class and a varsity football team. Tony Shermeyer, who coached Century to the Class 2A state semifinals in 2008, has moved over to coach Manchester Valley, which takes from North Carroll's draw area.

North Carroll fell off a bit in 2008. After finishing 8-3 and making the playoffs for the first time in 29 years in 2007, the Panthers finished 2-8 last year. The 2009 season looks better for coach Jeff Oeming. He returns six players on defense and three on offense. Also, the Panthers move out of Class 4A down to 2A, and with that change, Urbana, Thomas Johnson, Linganore and Tuscarora are off the schedule. In their places are Williamsport, Catoctin, Brunswick and Manchester Valley -- a difference of 35 wins from last year's schedule versus 14 for the new schedule. The entire linebacking corps returns, led by Jordan Hoover. John Shipley and Charlie Clark will battle for the starting quarterback job, but Oeming said whoever loses the QB job will play receiver. Mason Goretsas won a state wrestling championship and will be a defensive stopper at cornerback. Oeming said the team will look at two underclassmen, Cory Beam and Keegan Farley, for the starting running back job.

South Carroll has been accustomed to winning, reaching the state semifinals in 2003, 2005 and 2007. But in 2008, the team fell to 3-7. Coach Greg Mihalko resigned, and in his place is former assistant coach Steve Luette. Luette was an assistant on the South Carroll team that finished 11-2 and reached the state semifinals in 2003. This season's Cavalier team will be young, with only four returning starters, but among those starters is all-county lineman Sam Wright. Alex Terpening is expected to compete for the starting quarterback job and will be relied on at defensive back.

On paper, Westminster returns only one starter on offense from last season's team, but that is slightly deceiving. Running and defensive back Josh Booker started 10 games as a sophomore but tore his hamstring before his junior year. Offensive lineman Kevin Abendschoen is another player who was injured his junior year after starting his sophomore season. Getting those players healthy, along with returning starting quarterback Andrew Gilford, should bode well for the Owls. Defensively, coach Brad Wilson returns seven players. Junior defensive end Tyler Krug was a standout at the Bullseye Combine this year and is expected to be an impact player this season.

Winters Mill could be back in the playoff hunt after falling from 8-2 in 2007 to 4-6 in 2008. Coach Ken Johnson returns six offensive starters and eight on defense. Offensive lineman Brady Meyers could be a rising prospect, Johnson said. The 6-foot, 240-pound junior will anchor the line. Junior Josh Wike could be an impact player at running back this season. The lacrosse player is one of the team's fastest players and is expected to start at running back. The team has a solid senior class, but Johnson says there is not much depth this season.

MVAL -- Antietam Conference

For the third time in the past 20 years, North Hagerstown and South Hagerstown are being grouped with their fellow Washington County schools, and it has the smaller schools concerned.

In the new MVAL division structure, North (Class 2A) and South (Class 3A) share a conference with 1A teams Boonsboro, Smithsburg and Williamsport. When North and South originally joined the MVAL in the late 1980s, both schools quickly became title contenders. After the MVAL restructuring of the mid-2000s, North again dominated its small school rivals. However, two years ago, North and South, based on enrollment, were forced into a different division -- away from the county 1As. But now they are back, and North is figured to be a division title contender.

Although North Hagerstown is coming off a 3-7 season, the Hubs are considered a division favorite, thanks to 15 returning starters and a schedule that features their three Class 1A county rivals after not playing any of them the past two years.

Greg Pheabus is North Hagerstown's top all-around player. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound linebacker is a candidate for all-state small-school honors in 2009. Junior Anthony Winter returns after leading the county in receptions. Sophomore Dylan Dopson (6-4, 255) projects as the top lineman after earning all-area honors as a freshman. Other top returners include quarterback Steve Coccodrilli, who passed for 972 yards in six games last season, and two-way linemen starters Zach Schreiber and Alex Wolters.

Recently, Boonsboro and Smithsburg have been the division favorites, but both teams were hit hard by graduation.

Boonsboro, a playoff team in 2008, returns four offensive and five defensive starters, highlighted by running back Branden McLean, who was an all-league selection. Scott Haupt, a 6-foot, 195-pound linebacker, is the team's top defensive player.

McLean and Drew Lowery will be key to Boonsboro's wing-T rushing attack as coach Clayton Anders brings along a new quarterback, junior Andy Sigler.

Anders said this year's team lacks the depth of recent Boonsboro programs but should remain highly competitive in the MVAL Antietam Division. This year marks the 50th year of Boonsboro football, and the program has a series of events planned, including a reunion of the 1994 state title-winning team.

Smithsburg, coming off a 10-0 regular season, returns not a single offensive starter and only two defensive starters. "We'll be bigger than people think, but we don't have much speed and we need to find senior leadership," Smithsburg coach Buddy Orndorff said. The team's only defensive returnees are linebacker Nico Akers and corner back Jay Hartley. Orndorff will turn to running backs Jerome Payne and Taylor Damuth to lead the attack.

Williamsport welcomes new coach Randy Longnecker, and it might be the shot in the arm this program needs. Weight room turnout is at an all-time high. Longnecker has a solid group of running backs led by junior Reggie Russ and seniors Joey Sutch, Kenny Frey and Tyler Fisher.

Williamsport long has had a solid youth program but has never delivered on the varsity level. In fact, it remains the only public school west of Baltimore County (other than the newly opened Mountain Ridge and Manchester Valley) to never make the playoffs. Although cracking the 1A West top four this year will be difficult, Longnecker feels this is a program on the rise.

South Hagerstown remains a mystery. Veteran coach Greg Kellick is back and has standout junior quarterback Hunter Phillips returning. The Rebels have not had a winning season since 2002 and have had only seven winning seasons since 1973. However, the move into the 1A-dominated Antietam Division could help South turn around the program. The Rebels will get a boost from running back Xavier Richardson, a projected starter last year who missed the entire season due to injury. He performed well at the NFLHSPD at Frederick.

ESPNRise encourages comments from its users. Leave a comment below. Mike Loveday covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com. Mike can be reached at Michael.Loveday@espn.com