Arundel senior Amanda Hernandez and sophomore Tiffany Johnson, both starters on the girls' basketball team, watched the first two-and-a-half quarters of the Annapolis game from their folding chairs on the sidelines. The duo chose to play with their club volleyball team one day last week instead of basketball and were benched as a consequence.

Still, the Wildcats' reserves held their own and Arundel defeated Annapolis, 51-43, in a meaningful conference game last Tuesday.

Severna Park has also managed to keep winning, despite the absence of senior All-County forward Julia Waters, who was the team's leading returning scorer prior to being diagnosed with mononucleosis.

Experience is abundant throughout the upper echelon of the conference. Skill runs deep in each lineup and the result is six teams bunched at the top of the standings with seven games left in the regular season. Entering this week, Severna Park was the only undefeated team, at 8-0 in the conference. Arundel was 7-1, trailed by Annapolis and Meade at 6-2. After back-to-back defeats last week to Annapolis and Severna Park, Broadneck was 5-3, three games out of first place along with Chesapeake (4-2).

The county championship is "wide open for anybody right now," Severna Park Coach Bill Giblin said. "Any two of those six teams are going to go."

Much of the parity in the top half of the conference can be attributed to senior-laden teams and a little bit of inconsistency. Both Severna Park, last year's county champion, and Chesapeake, the 4A East Region winner, have the same starting five from last year. Still, Chesapeake lost to Severna Park and hit an emotional low after losing to Meade. Severna Park, led by senior guard Lauren Hall's 13.5 points per game, was on an 11-game winning streak entering this week.

"We need to keep practicing hard," said Falcons senior Jess Norris. "We shouldn't be satisfied with where we are now and we need to get psyched up for all of our games left and not take anyone lightly. Anyone can unexpectedly beat you when you're not having a good night."

No one in the county is taking Annapolis lightly, either. The bulk of the Panthers' offense is coming from seniors C'Vette Henson, Whitney Crankfield and Samantha Sydney. Together, the trio is averaging 41.2 points per game. While the Panthers have yet to beat Severna Park or Arundel, they had convincing wins against South River, Broadneck and Meade.

"We're very capable of beating Severna Park and Arundel," said Crankfield, who is second on the team with 11.8 points per game. "We played Severna Park early in the season so we weren't fully developed yet and Arundel was a bad night for us. It still leaves us in the top half of the county, but I know we're capable of beating them so I'm not too worried about it.

"My freshman and sophomore years were both losing seasons," she added. "Coach [John] Brady has turned the program around a lot. It's been a complete 360. Whenever I go on the court, it's more positive, I'm a lot more confident."

Meade is one of the younger teams in the conference but has experience and talent in All-County guard Sparkle Williamson.

Chesapeake rebounded from its 66-54 loss to Meade and has won its last four, including a critical win against Arundel. Three senior starters -- Ginger Williams, Lynnea Spinnenweber and Courtney Gogolinski -- are averaging double digits for the Cougars.

"I guess this is a good generation of basketball, the senior-junior class," Spinnenweber said. "I think everyone realizes that and is going hard. There is so much competition there's no real easy games for anybody.

"I think it's going to take a lot of luck [to get to the county championship]," she added. "If one night a team plays out of their mind, good for them, there's nothing you can do about it. To get in it would be a good thing, but it's going to be hard for whoever does."

Arundel, which finished with five league losses last year, only has one blemish on its record -- Chesapeake. Coaches across the county credit senior Jessie Collins with much of the Wildcats' improvement this year, but the team also benefited from playing together in summer and fall leagues.

"We work hard," said sophomore guard Alex McGuire, who leads the team with 16.6 points per game. "We never want to give up. We might be a little undersized in the post, but we have some of the best guards and shooters in the county. We want to be [in the county championship] real bad. That's one of our goals. We missed it last year."

Arundel's game against Severna Park yesterday ended after press time, but some of the most competitive matchups still remain on the schedule: Arundel will face the Falcons again, on Feb. 11; Chesapeake will face Annapolis at 7:15 p.m. tomorrow and Meade still has games against Arundel and Chesapeake.

"We control our own destiny," Arundel Coach Lee Rogers said. "We can't lose any more games. We're in the toughest bracket, I think. I think Chesapeake has an easier road, not taking things away from the other teams, but we have a tougher schedule in our division."

Annapolis' Samantha Sydney, right, and Arundel's Jessica Collins are two players responsible for parity at the top of the conference standings.