The Glenelg girls' basketball team was in the middle of a grueling two-hour practice one day last week, and the sounds reverberating off the gymnasium walls were music to Coach Ciaran Lesikar's ears.

Laughter and compliments combined with the pounding of basketballs and squeaks of high-top sneakers as the team worked on its half-court offense.

And what Lesikar didn't hear was even more pleasing. The shouting and bickering that saddled last year's underachieving Gladiators was gone, the turbulent atmosphere replaced by optimism.

"It got to the point last year when it was just tough to hold a practice with all the in-fighting that was going on," Lesikar said. "But that's what you have to love about sports: Every season lets you start with a clean slate."

Glenelg wasn't bad last year -- it finished 13-11 after losing in the 2A South Region quarterfinals to eventual state champion Potomac, 55-52. What bothered Lesikar was, he said, that the constant squabbling prevented the team from reaching its potential.

"Let's just say last year there was one drama after another," said senior power forward Rachel Baker. "It was more of us competing against each other than working and supporting each other. I think we learned from it, though, and now we know what not to do."

If the Gladiators have changed their ways, there's no telling how far they can go this season. Glenelg, which returns three starters, is one of several teams coaches believe can win the county title. They said the one-time talent gap between three-time defending champion River Hill and the rest of the league has narrowed considerably.

River Hill returns four starters -- including Temple University-bound guard Keisha Eaddy (22 points per game) and senior forward Cari Haas (8.3 ppg) -- but lacks a premier post player after center Brittany Gordon (19.5 ppg) graduated and left to play at Delaware. Atholton also returns four starters, led by point guard Julie Taylor (13.2 ppg) and sophomore center Taylor Chapman (6.6 ppg). Long Reach has two of the county's top players -- senior point guard Carlie Nethken (17.3 ppg) and forward Jannelee Klippsteen (9.1 ppg). Mount Hebron returns four starters -- led by guards Deanna Dydynski (7.4 ppg) and Jenny Wentzel (7.1 ppg) -- from a team that tied Atholton for third place.

"I think the best thing about this year is that you have four or five teams that have a shot at winning it," Atholton Coach Maureen Shacreaw said. "You still have to give the edge to River Hill, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if somebody catches them -- it's just a matter of which team it will be."

Glenelg players believe it will be them, and they make a good argument. The team returns its starting back court of junior identical twins Lauren and Blair Maxson to complement a front court that features 6-foot-1 junior center Alyssa Geisler (4.5 ppg) and the 6-foot Baker (9.2 ppg). Junior small forward Alissa Bourne (6.8 ppg) is one of the county's top defenders, and its bench features sophomores Katie Biggs and Rachael Leaf, who led an undefeated junior varsity team last season.

Now Glenelg has to find cohesiveness on the court. Last season, Glenelg lost five games by five points or fewer, despite holding the opposition to an average of 42.4 points per game.

"We have a good foundation," Bourne said. "Now, we just have to stay positive and find the way to win close games. If we do that, it's going to be a very good season."

Above, Rachel Baker grabs a rebound in a scrimmage against Middletown. Left, Glenelg Coach Ciaran Lesikar. In-fighting made it hard to even hold practice last year, he said. "But that's what you have to love about sports: Every season lets you start with a clean slate," he said of this year's teamwork.Glenelg's Alissa Bourne is one of the top defenders in the county. She also averaged 6.8 points last season.