Mike Kriner knew what was missing when he arrived at the Maryland District 7 all-star team's opening practice Wednesday afternoon: seven players.

The Southern Maryland team is scheduled to play an opening-round game against the New York-Connecticut winner today at Oak Ridge Park in Hughesville in the Big League Eastern Regional Tournament. The regional champ goes on to the World Series in Kalamazoo, Mich.

But on Wednesday, Renee Oursler was playing with the Shamrocks of Virginia, Candice Rice was out with an eye infection, and five other members of the two-time Big League World Series champion squad--including former All-Met player of the year Clarissa Crowell--were at the ASA National Tournament in Tennessee with Dynasty, a local club team.

If the absent players advanced to the finals in Tennessee, they will not return to the area in time for the 4:30 p.m. start, forcing Kriner to replace a number of them on the roster. (Results were unavailable at press time.)

"They are playing the best teams in the country, and they've been seeing good competition," Kriner said, "but that doesn't help us by having to practice without everyone here."

Former Northern and current University of Maryland catcher Beth Radford admitted that she, too, felt mixed emotions for her teammates' success.

"We really want them back," Radford admitted. "We want them to do well, but we also want them to come back so we can do well, too."

For the past two seasons the Maryland team has been dominant in the Big League tournaments. Over that span, they did not drop a single game in the double-elimination regional tournament and lost only two games in the round-robin-style World Series.

The success left the team quietly confident entering last year's tournament. This year, the Maryland team's confidence seems a little more apparent.

"I feel that we're probably going to win it again," said outfielder and '99 Westlake graduate Patty Brown. "We have good hitters, and our defense plays real well, so it is kind of hard for other teams to get to us. No matter which of the 15 girls we put in, our defense is solid."

Back from last year's team are Brown, Crowell, Oursler, Radford, Rice, Lisa Boone, Andrea Brady, Devin Karcesky and Beth White. Four of those nine returners--Brown, Crowell, Radford and Rice--have been a part of both championship squads. New additions to this year's team include January Balenger, Jill Callaway, Lizzy Estevez, Adrianne Draper, Jen Peel and Kristie Pickeral.

If she returns, Crowell should lead the Maryland team on the mound. Crowell didn't miss a beat in her first season at Virginia Tech. The McDonough graduate posted a 25-8 record with a 1.05 ERA.

But for now, it's just a matter of getting the team intact for the first game.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," Kriner said.

Big League Eastern Regional Tournament

* What: Big League Eastern Regional Tournament

* Where: Oak Ridge Park in Hughesville

* When: Tournament began yesterday and runs through Thursday's championship game at 6 p.m. The Maryland District 7 team's first game is today at 4:30 p.m. against the winner of the New York-Connecticut game.

* Admission: Free.

* Details: The Eastern Regional Tournament is a six-team double-elimination qualifier for the Big League World Series, which begins Aug. 16 in Kalamazoo, Mich. The Maryland District 7 team is the two-time defending World Series champion. The team is made up of 15 of the top softball players, ages 16-18, from the Southern Maryland area. The District 7 team has not lost a qualifying game over the past two years.

CAPTION: Patty Brown, shown diving during practice on Friday, said Southern Maryland is likely to win the Big League softball World Series for a third straight year.