* Team to beat: Riverdale Baptist.
* What makes them so good: The area's top-ranked team at season's end has also established itself as one of the top programs in the nation. The Crusaders will be hard-pressed to replace do-it-all forward Xenia Stewart, a first-team All-Met now at Pitt, and heady point guard Pam Stansfield. But don't feel too bad for Coach Diane Richardson -- Maryland-bound forward Demauria Liles averaged 17 points and 14 rebounds, and guard Lindsay Harris (Rhode Island) averaged 14 points. Largo transfer Vicki Collier (Old Dominion) blends power and finesse in the post.
* Contender: After four years as an assistant at Bishop McNamara, it looked as thought Robert Surratt had gotten a big break last year when he was tabbed to replace Mike Bozeman, who had left for a job at Fordham. But Bozeman reconsidered the move shortly thereafter and returned home, creating what could have been an awkward situation at the Forestville powerhouse.
But Surratt immediately slid back into the assistant's seat, allowing Bozeman to retake the reigns and quelling any uneasiness in the program. This year, though, Bozeman has left and shut the door behind, taking an assistant's job at George Washington and leaving the Mustangs' job to Surratt in earnest. And the team he inherits is laden with talent, perhaps enough to unseat the Crusaders as the top team in the area.
"It's really not a big difference," Surratt said of flying solo at the Mustangs' helm instead of deferring to Bozeman. "We did it tag-team, basically, as head coaches.
"I was basically in charge of coordinating the defense, so we would kind of play chess against each other in practice," Surratt said. "Now I'm doing it myself."
Along those lines, most coaches would love to have the pieces Surratt has at his disposal. Senior guard Paulisha Kellum, a Virginia recruit, helped McNamara become the top-ranked team in the country for most of the 2003-2004 season. Classmates Ashley Spriggs (Charlotte), Jori Nwachukwu (North Carolina Central) and Gabriel Sanders (California-Pennsylvania) have loads of experience, and sophomores Alexis Cannaday and Tierrra Thomas may be the next in a long line of nationally touted players from McNamara.
Surratt characterized his team as "happy go-lucky" and "stress free," in part because the seniors have chosen college and aren't being strained by the recruiting process. It also doesn't hurt to know who their coach is this year.
"We don't have to adjust to anything new," Kellum said. "Everybody is just really relaxed and really comfortable with Coach Rob as the coach."
* Best of the rest: Grace Brethren has won the Potomac Valley Athletic Association title all fours years of Coach Jeff Perry's tenure. The Eagles return senior Lisa Williams, who averaged more than 10 rebounds per game last season, and brings back eighth-graders Gs Andrea Jones and Cierra Strickland, both of whom started as seventh-graders. . . . Pallotti, led by senior co-captains Ashley Lyles and Rachel Baker, looks to defend its first Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Division title. . . . Elizabeth Seton was inexperienced last year and it showed in its 8-16 record, but the Roadrunners have returning starters Patrice Cannaday, Stephanie St. Aubin, Danielle Brinkley and Robin Burton.
-- JEFF ERMANN