The Reservoir girls' soccer team won just four county games and scored just 29 goals last year, experiencing the growing pains that come with playing a varsity season for the first time. The Gators, with no seniors, were smaller and had less experience than their opponents, and scored one goal or none against seven county teams.

"Last year, the really good teams could push us around," Reservoir Coach Jeff Bradbury said. "It was tough to compete against the best teams."

Not anymore. The Gators already have 22 goals and a 5-1 record entering Tuesday's game against Atholton.

"We know now we can play with anybody," said Reservoir junior forward Christine Vidmar. "We have just as much talent as everyone else this year."

Reservoir is one of several county girls' and boys' soccer teams on the rise, competing for county titles -- and respect -- in an area long dominated by one school: River Hill.

The parity in area soccer this season has contributed to a tight contest for the county boys and girls titles and to different opinions on the cause of the trend.

Some coaches say the level of soccer skills is improving throughout the high school league; others say it's just an off-year for the top schools.

The defending 3A champion River Hill boys' team (4-1 overall, 2-1 league), which has earned at least a share of the county title in two of the previous three seasons, entered the week tied for third in the league with Wilde Lake (3-2, 2-1) and behind Mount Hebron (6-0-1, 2-0-1) and Hammond (3-3, 3-0).

The three-time defending county champion River Hill girls' team (5-3, 2-2) entered the week tied for sixth place with Oakland Mills, which won just one league game last year. River Hill's league losses are to Atholton and Oakland Mills, which are two teams that had never defeated the Hawks.

Glenelg (6-2, 4-0), which has never won a county title, is the only undefeated squad in league play. Atholton (3-2, 2-1), Centennial (3-1, 3-1), Reservoir (5-1, 3-1) and Wilde Lake (3-2, 2-1) each has one league loss.

"The top three [girls] teams last year -- River Hill, Centennial and Wilde Lake -- are no longer the three best teams right now," Bradbury said. "Now, it's like the top three teams change every game because there's a lot of parity."

Hammond Coach Rick Bantz said there are better players throughout the league.

"Even about five years ago, you could count on one hand the number of good teams in each classification, and you would know going into the season who were the best players in your league," Bantz said. "But now, there are good players on every team, and there are a lot of teams who can potentially be very good."

Glenelg girls coach Dean Stoutenborough attributes the parity to the increasing number of year-round players.

"When I was in high school, if you didn't play for SAC [Soccer Association of Columbia], you didn't really have any other options, and you had to play [recreational] league, and that was a much lower level," said Stoutenborough, a former SAC player who graduated from Atholton in 1995. "Now, there are opportunities all over if you want to play club soccer year-round."

In fact, several of the county's top players -- Centennial two-time All-Met midfielder Hayley Siegel, River Hill All-Met goalie Katy Hudson and Atholton forward Kate Nicholson -- are former SAC players who now play elsewhere.

"You get better by playing with the best players you can and against the best teams you can," said Hudson, who joined the Reston Football Club Milan in Virginia after playing for SAC for five years. "For me, it meant having to go play for a team in another state."

But Wilde Lake boys' soccer coach Dave Nesbitt and River Hill boys coach Bill Stara, who has won more Maryland state soccer titles than any other coach, feel the current parity is a product of the county not having as many good players as in previous seasons.

"I think what you're seeing in boys' soccer is what happens when the county is down," said Stara, whose team lost to Hammond for the first time in school history on Sept. 21. "This is not a peak year for [boys'] soccer in Howard County."

Said Nesbitt: "In the past, you would get between two and four really good players, and you would fill in the rest. Every team has what I call piano players and piano movers. The piano movers are the complementary players who go out and have a specific role out there, and the level of those players has dropped off. And I also don't think there are as many top-level players out there this year as we've had in the past."

It is still too early to identify the county's best teams because several teams could meet again in postseason when the stakes are higher. And to coaches and players, those are the games that really matter.

"If I'm going to play a team twice, then I would like to win when we play in the regular season, but I'm more concerned with winning that second game in the region tournament," Sheridan said.

"Because that's the one that counts the most, because if you lose, then your season's over."

Members of the Glenelg girls' soccer team celebrate, top, after scoring against Reservoir on Friday. Left, Samantha Braun gives chase to Reservoir's Christine Vidmar. Though the Gators lost, 1-0, they had already bettered their county win record of last season, entering the week 5-1.