MDVarsity.com continues its countdown toward No. 1 with the teams ranked No. 15 through No. 11. Each day, MDVarsity will list five more teams until unveiling its top five Friday.
The annual MDVarsity preseason Top 25 often serves as the guide for the Maryland State Poll, which will release its preseason rankings Aug. 25, followed by week-to-week rankings throughout the regular season and a final postseason poll.
Three of today's five teams will be linked -- directly or indirectly -- through results. No. 14 Fort Hill and No. 13 Thomas Johnson will renew a football rivalry that has its origins in the 1960s. It is possible, through the playoff system, that Thomas Johnson could see No. 11 Eleanor Roosevelt in November. The other two teams in today's five are former region rivals Gwynn Park and River Hill.
In sizing up the preseason Top 25, the following factors are heavily weighed: quality of returning players, strength of schedule, reasonable season expectations and recent history.
The countdown continues
15. Gwynn Park (8-3 in 2008)
River Hill is no longer in Gwynn Park's way, and that leaves us favoring Gwynn Park among this season's Class 2A schools. Of course, it remains a close call with Eastern Tech and Edmondson, both preseason Top 25 teams. Coach Danny Hayes has turned Gwynn Park into one of the state's winningest programs this decade. Even factoring in a 0-10 season due to forfeits, Gwynn Park has won 83 games. This season's edition features major prospects Khalek Shepherd, Brian Blue and Jerome June. Gwynn Park's schedule features standard league rivals Friendly, Douglass-PG and Potomac, all considered playoff contenders.
Key Game: at Friendly, Oct. 2
14. Fort Hill (11-2)
The Sentinels were within a minute of a state title in 2008, only to see it slip away to a talented Dunbar team. Fort Hill returns nine starters from last season's 1A runner-up team and heads into the season as the MDVarsity.com 1A favorite. The Sentinels have reason to be excited this season, since among the nine returners are quarterback Devin Lee, defensive ends Colton Sibley and Glen Vincent, linebackers Garrett Dolly and Dakota Welsh, and halfback Sam Walker. Fort Hill does not have the luxury of competing in a league, and therefore it has put together an overly demanding regular-season schedule. Fort Hill will face 4A Thomas Johnson, state-ranked Mount St. Joseph, West Virginia powers Keyser and Martinsburg, and Pennsylvania private school Germantown Academy. As long as Fort Hill can survive that schedule to qualify for postseason, it certainly will be battle tested.
Key Game: vs. Allegany, Nov. 7
13. Thomas Johnson (6-5)
Patriots coach Ben Wright returns nine starters from a team that finished 6-5 and made the 4A North region playoffs in 2008. Last year, Wright said the team was built for this season, and with standouts like Nick Forbes, Jeremy Grove and Marquis Woodyard, he appears to have been correct. TJ will have a difficult schedule with Martinsburg (W.Va.), Fort Hill, Urbana, Tuscarora and Linganore, but if it can get through that, it could be considered the team to beat in 4A.
Key Game: vs. Linganore, Oct. 30
12. River Hill (14-0)
River Hill is riding a state-best 28-game winning streak and has gone 41-1 since 2006, losing only to a Friendly team led by Joe Haden in the 2006 Class 3A title game. There is little reason to think the graduations of Michael Campanaro, Malek Redd and Leron Eaddy will alter the Hawks' chances of making the playoffs again this season. Defensive back Kevin Johnson is a Football Bowl Subdivision talent, and Kevin Moore is a solidly built linebacker. Coach Brian Van Deusen has built not only a Howard County power, but also a state power with back-to-back Class 2A championships. The Hawks return to Class 3A this season. River Hill will face some contenders to its local throne with Atholton, Howard and Centennial all fielding solid teams this season. But until someone beats the Hawks, they get the nod as the favorite to come out of 3A East and maybe get another shot at that 3A championship trophy.
Key Game: at Wilde Lake, Sept. 11
11. Eleanor Roosevelt (10-1)
It was a mixed first year for Raiders coach Tom Green. Eleanor Roosevelt won the regular-season title in Prince George's County but lost to Wise in the first round of the playoffs. Heavy graduation losses might affect the Raiders' early season matchups, but Green knows he has the athletes to once again battle for the 4A title. Green is a proven coach and returns 10 starters who do not have new offensive and defensive schemes to learn this season. With Suitland and Wise looking strong, this looks to be one of the few years in which the Raiders could be considered the underdogs.
Key Game: vs. Wise, Sept. 26
ESPN RISE 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.