The Central League is a mystery this season, after a year that saw three of its teams make the final eight in the District 1 Class AAAA tournament.

No one team stands out this season, like Chester does in the Del Val League. But there is a group of teams that will be in the hunt for the Central League title, starting with defending champion Upper Darby, and also including Ridley, Conestoga and Lower Merion.

UPPER DARBY is coming off a historic season when it went 26-5, achieving a school record for victories and winning the first league title since 1978, when John Griffin coached the team.

Khayri West, a 6-1 senior, is the lone returning starter for the Royals after averaging a double-double in points and rebounds last season. West will get help from seniors Jamir McRae and Trent Pickard. But the success of Upper Darby could depend on starting sophomore guards Kwahmere Gredic and Basil Jones, who just broke his left wrist on his shooting hand and is not expected back until after Jan. 1.

"Most of the coaches are under the impression that Lower Merion is the team to beat - they have most of their team back from last year - and with the general impression after that, Conestoga, Ridley and ourselves," Upper Darby coach Bob Miller said. "We had three teams reach the district quarterfinals, and I'd have to think Ridley and Lower Merion will be back again, because they both have the bulk of their teams back this year. It will be interesting. There is no clear-cut favorite."

SPRINGFIELD also is coming off one of the best seasons in school history. The Cougars won the District 1 Class AAA championship, winning the first district title in 62 years and making their deepest run in the state playoffs since 1981.

"There are two distinct groups in the Central League," Springfield coach Kevin McCormick said. "Ridley, Conestoga, Lower Merion and Upper Darby - that group is above everyone else, and I think the rest of us are a notch below. But we have four seniors who have played."

Forward Lou Meindl is the only senior back with significant experience for the Cougars. He'll try to take up the considerable scoring void left by the departure of Frank McKnight, a 1,000-point scorer.

RIDLEY returns a senior-laden team that went 21-9 last year, led by Steve Egee, coming off a successful football season for the Green Raiders. Egee returns with 6-6 scorer Dan Robinson and John McSorley. Egee is closing in on 1,000 points and will be the focal point of the offense.

HAVERFORD returns Jake Mingey, who averaged 14 points a game last season for Fords coach Terry McNichol. Mingey will be joined by Dave Cassanelli for a team that finished 15-10 last season.

STRATH HAVEN is looking to improve on its 9-15 finish last season. Seniors Willie Curry, Christian Matthews, Carl McKenzie and Mike Reese are all back.

MARPLE NEWTOWN has a new coach, Jerry Doemling Jr. He inherits a team that finished 6-19 overall, returning senior John Rutecki and junior Dan Giordano.

Senior guard Tim Brown is the top returning player for PENNCREST, which is trying to rebound from a 9-15 season. Junior Rick Bailey also returns for Lions coach Mike Doyle.

RADNOR also is coming off a rough season, 7-18. Senior Rahil Rather and 6-4 junior John Coleman are back for Red Raiders coach Mike McBride. *