It's been some time since the Northern Region's tennis championship provided much suspense. But as the season heads towards the tournament at Wakefield in late October, people are finally able to ask, with a straight face, the question that has been rhetorical in recent years -- "Who is going to win?"

W.T. Woodson's Michelle Dodds dominated the region winning the title in each of the last four years before graduating and heading for Vanderbilt this fall. But, Woodson's loss seems to be a net gain for the rest of the region.

"In the past Michelle's tools were so strong, you were competiting for second place," said West Springfield Coach Frank Pilley of the Woodson star who ended her high school career with a 115-2 mark. "There was a flock of girls competing for second place and Michelle was the queen. Now there is a flock of girls competing for first place."

In the Great Falls District, Madison boasts three contenders in Leah Palmer, Julie Seamon and Daria Ivan while Langley's Luna Han also has title hopes. Fairfax's Katie Gultnieks and Wakefield's Morgan McKinney are the best in the Potomac District. West Springfield's Meredith Jamieson or Robinson's Ann Colombell could return the crown to the Northern District where it has resided for at least the last seven years.

And, though respect for Dodds' accomplishments is widespread, few tears are being shed by the new contenders. "{Michelle Dodds} had been so dominant for such a long time," said Fairfax's Gultnieks. "I love her to death but I'm glad she gone. It's wide open this year."

Gultnieks, a two-time All-Met selection and third-ranked in the Mid-Atlantic Tennis Association last season, was region runnerup to Dodds as a freshman. After consecutive regional semifinal appearances she is unbeaten this year.

"She has a well-rounded game. She serves well and her second serve is an excellent serve," said Fairfax Coach George Chinn. "I think the strength of her game is she really doesn't have a weakness and she has a lot of experience now."

And, though her skills and experience may make her the favorite, Gultnieks is anything but a lock. "I would say Katie is the front runner," said Langley Coach Anne Beasley, who has also privately coached all the contenders except McKinney. "But there are at least seven others who, if they get really hot, could win."

Madison, the region's top team, boast three region hopefuls in senior Leah Palmer, sophomore Julie Seamon and sophomore Daria Ivan. The trio bounced around in the top three spots early in the season but first-year Madison Coach Celeste Tethel recently locked Ivan in at the number one spot followed by Seamon and Palmer. Together they provide Madison with enough strength to be the favorite to repeat its state team title of a year ago.

However, with only the top two players from each district advancing to the regional event, one of the Warhawks will be left without a regional shot.

"Most schools are lucky to get one good experienced tournament player and its very good to get two. But to get three is incredible," said Beasley, whose Langley team won three state titles from 1986-1988. "That's as dominant a trio of players playing together since Langley had Allegra Milholland, Solina Kwan, Robyn Evers and Allison Satre."

The current Langley standout is Han. Only a sophomore, she carries a powerful forehand and the versitility to play an all-court game or utilize the serve-and-volley approach.

In the finally Dodds-less Northern District a new league champion will be crowned and the two players most likely to contend for regional honors appear to be West Springfield's Jamieson and Robinson's Colombell.

Both players have been district runnerups to Dodds in past seasons and Jamieson, a junior, defeated Colombell, 10-5, in their first meeting this season. Jamieson, another with the skills to win from both the backcourt and at the net, was unbeaten (12-0) heading into Tuesday's rematch with Colombell. The senior Colombell is extremely quick and exceptionally strong from the baseline.

"I think Meredith and Ann are on par with any other girl in the region. But on any day any of these girls could win," said West Springfield's Pilley. "My player is very strong and has as good a chance to go to the state as anyone. But there's no clear cut emerging player."

Morgan McKinney of Wakefield, a three-time district runnerup, has been outstanding in leading the Warriors to the top of the Potomac District. But to capture the region title she will first have to solve the reoccurring nightmare of district-rival Gultnieks. A senior, McKinney posted a 10-2 regular season mark a year ago, with both losses at the hands of Gultnieks. She lost to Gultnieks again in last year's district tournament and her only losses of this season have been to the Fairfax sensation.

"She's got a good solid game from the baseline," said Wakefield Coach Don Tomb. "She's very consistent and she's added a few things she didn't have a year ago."

With so many contenders it is certain the eventual champion will have earned her way into the winner's circle. "It's going to be a tough match no matter where you're put in the draw. Everyone is going to have a tough time," said Gultnieks.

So, who is going to win? Now finally after four years, that's a good question.