Since 1991, nine Maryland 4A champions have come out of Montgomery County. With the opening kickoff to another competitive season set for Friday evening, The Post takes a look at how one of the Washington area's toughest conferences is shaping up.

The Favorite

Damascus: The defending Maryland 4A champion lost just twice last year -- in the second week of the season to eventual Maryland 3A champion Linganore and to Gaithersburg, a loss the Swarmin' Hornets avenged in the playoffs.

Most of that team will be back this year, including six offensive starters and eight defensive starters. Senior All-Met running back Matt Reidy, who rushed for 1,727 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, will run behind a typically big and strong Damascus offensive line led by senior center Andrew Martinez (5-foot-11, 265), junior guard Steve Baisey (5-11, 235) and senior tackle Sean Seidel (6-1, 205).

Reidy will start on defense as well, along with senior linebacker Ronnie Nahr, last season's leading tackler.

But the Hornets' talent, experience and, most importantly, their state title, have made them a target this season.

"We definitely have a bull's-eye, a little brighter bull's-eye than we normally have on us," Damascus Coach Dan Makosy said. "We're going to be everybody's key game. If we can just stay focused, take it week by week and not look ahead to anybody, I think we have as good a chance as anybody. And, again, we have to stay healthy. That's the key."

Makosy was pleased with his team's offseason efforts. He said workouts were attended by 70 to 90 players each evening.

"We can't live on last year," Nahr said. "It's a whole new season."

The Contenders

Gaithersburg, Whitman, Quince Orchard: Unlike Damascus, most of Gaithersburg's starters from last season have graduated. But "rebuild" is not in the Trojans' vocabulary. Gaithersburg has reached the playoffs seven straight times -- the second-longest streak in the state -- and should challenge for a berth again this year.

"We've got a tremendous number of very talented juniors on our team," Gaithersburg Coach Kreg Kephart said. "It's really going to be a matter of how quickly they mature and develop and step up to this next level."

One of the key starters back is quarterback Joey Robinson. Who steps in behind him at tailback is a bit uncertain, though there are many candidates.

"We honestly have five or six kids, all of whom can play tailback for us," Kephart said. "And they may very well all get turns carrying the football."

Whitman will have a new starting quarterback for the first time since the first game of the 2001 season, with Tyler Lazear now playing at Army. But the Vikings, who last year made the playoffs for the first time since 1988, will have a chance to get back to the postseason behind what may be the county's most imposing offensive line -- seniors Carl Ehrlich (6-5, 250), Cambell Martens (6-6, 305), Blake Maynard (6-5, 255), Bennett Chompski (5-9, 250) and Danny Roberts (6-2, 225).

Ehrlich "is very lean, all muscle," Whitman Coach Dean Swink said. "He has a defensive mentality on the offensive line. He doesn't try to block people, he tries to bury them."

Pat Lazear, who led the Vikings in tackles as a freshman last year and saw spot duty at fullback, should get more carries. Senior wide receiver Matt Johnson gives the Vikings a speedster on the outside.

Dave Mencarini is Quince Orchard's fourth coach in five years, but the Cougars will have some continuity this season because for the last two years, Mencarini was an assistant for head coach Fred Kim (who left in the offseason to take over at Seneca Valley).

A fast defense should be a strength of the team as Mencarini has eight starters back from last season's unit. Junior Bani Gbadyu (6-1, 195) should wreak havoc from his defensive end spot. "He's pretty scary in terms of his athleticism," Mencarini said. "He's tough to block one-on-one." Also back is senior linebacker Greg Chimera, a three-year starter who made 101 tackles last year and 88 as a sophomore.

On offense, senior Brian Barrett, a first-year starter, will have weapons aplenty with senior wide receiver Scot Riddell, senior running back Cameron George and senior tight end Brendan Willard.

The Sleepers

Sherwood, Churchill: Perhaps no school was hit as hard by graduation as Sherwood. But the Warriors, thanks to arguably the most experienced coaching staff in the area, and the additions of sophomore Deontay Twyman (last year's junior varsity quarterback) and senior Chris Sheahin (who transferred back to Sherwood from Good Counsel) could make a run at the postseason.

Churchill, meanwhile, will attempt to make the playoffs for the first time since 1995, when legendary coach Fred Shepherd led the Bulldogs to the state final.

Jamie Collins, in his second year as head coach, finds himself in a unique situation. Because he was the junior varsity coach at Churchill prior to taking over for Ernie Williams (now at Paint Branch), Collins is coaching this year's seniors for the fourth consecutive season.

There are 28 seniors on the team, led by third-year starting quarterback Alex Halls and senior running back Kyle Smith, and Collins said they have good chemistry.

The key for the Bulldogs will be getting off to a fast start. They open the season at Gaithersburg, then play at Quince Orchard before hosting rival Wootton. "Their season is based on whether they beat us," Collins said. After that, Seneca Valley, Paint Branch and Springbrook are on tap.

Three of Churchill's losses last year came by seven points or fewer.

The Spoiler

Richard Montgomery: The Rockets, after going 17-2 the previous two seasons, crashed to a 1-9 mark last year. But Richard Montgomery could make a similarly dramatic turn in the opposite direction this year.

Ten sophomores started on varsity last season, and all are back this year.

The biggest difference for the Rockets will be the return of Steve Weedon, a key member of the 2001 and 2002 squads.

"We've got good speed," Coach Mike Bonavia said. "If we can pull our line together, we'll be pretty competitive."

Matt Reidy and state champion Damascus are the favorites to defend their title in a tough 4A conference. Former Seneca Valley coaches Al Thomas and Terry Changuris, above, take over at Sherwood.Whitman sophomore linebacker Pat Lazear is back after leading the Vikings in tackles last season.