The Inquirer has compiled its preseason South Jersey Top 10 in girls' basketball, and Washington Township has drawn the short straw.

Nobody likes to be No. 1 in the preseason because it gives opponents extra motivation.

This season, there were many possible short straws when the Top 10 was formulated.

That's because this is perceived to be among the most balanced seasons in girls' basketball, and one could argue that any team in the preseason Top 10 could make a run at the top spot.

Unlike earlier in this decade, when Willingboro, led by Crystal Langhorne, was a three-time No. 1 team, or even in 2006, when Camden Catholic didn't lose to a school from the seven-county South Jersey area, the race for the top should create season-long suspense.

"It's absolutely wide open," said Washington Township coach Jennifer Natale, who wasn't convincing in her lighthearted request to be anywhere but the top spot. "It's so hard to predict because there is so much balance."

That wasn't just coachspeak.

Township is talented, with four returning starters in Dana and Shawn Wert, 5-foot-8 senior twins who compose the backcourt; 5-9 junior center Ashley Giedemann; and 5-7 guard-forward Alyse Maiden.

The Minutemaids don't have a lot of height, but have plenty of quickness and experience. This is a team that will win with a relentless defense.

As experienced and talented as Township is, the Minutemaids could finish anywhere from first to fourth - in their own division.

The Olympic Conference's American Division is loaded with No. 2 Eastern, No. 5 Lenape and No. 8 Cherokee. And nobody in the division expects to have an easy time playing unranked Cherry Hill East.

The fourth-place team in the division could win a South Jersey title.

Now that's balance.

Absegami was last year's No. 1 team, but must replace the graduated Tara Booker and Sara Mostafa, who combined to average more than 33 points a game. With so much recent success, the Braves shouldn't be discounted, which is why they start the season at No. 10.

Unlike some sports where the top teams avoid each other like the plague, one of the alluring parts of South Jersey girls' basketball is that there is little ducking. Most of the top teams relish playing one another.

Take Camden Catholic, for instance. The Irish have nonleague games against Eastern, Cherokee and Washington Township, just to name three.

Coach Chris Palladino was another who playfully pleaded to stay out of the top spot, but with that type of schedule, the Irish have the ability to play themselves into it.

"I think it's great that there is so much balance and you have an equal shot to get to the top if you play well," Palladino said.

Yes, but why the balance? Why isn't there that dominant team that everybody expects to go unbeaten against South Jersey competition?

"I think there is so much balance because of the growth of youth programs," said Sacred Heart coach Steve DiPatri, whose team begins at No. 7. "Plus, in the last five or six years, the Group 4 schools have gotten so much better."

DiPatri said that for whatever reason, the Group 4 schools weren't as strong about five years ago.

"Now, Group 4 is loaded," he said.

His point is well-taken. Half of the preseason Top 10 schools reside in Group 4 - Washington Township, Eastern, Lenape, Cherokee and Absegami. At least one of these five teams won't advance to even the sectional semifinals.

DiPatri said more schools had raised their talent level because of a simple mathematical formula: There is a bigger pool to choose from.

"The popularity of the sport has transcended to the high school level," he said. "At a younger level, I notice more girls participating."

So with that in mind, there should be constant movement in the top 10. Coaches have long said that they don't want to be in the preseason top 10, but that they want to be alone at the top when the final rankings are released.

There are numerous candidates for that honor in what should be a fascinating season.