There was a nagging suspicion and there turned out to be good reason.

Back we plowed through coaches' All-Inter-Ac teams and, yes, this is quite the unusual winter.

Check this out: For the first time since the 1978-79 season, no league player can claim he earned first-team honors in the previous campaign.

Hmm. So what could that mean? Perhaps a mad scramble.

Because it returns three starters (Joe Hill, Jeff Holton and Dean Melchionni) and as many key subs (Cameron Ayers, Eric Yuschak and Tim McCarty) from a championship team, Germantown Academy is being eyed by most as at least a slight favorite.

But as coach Jim Fenerty noted, his squad so far is missing floor leader Kyle Griffin (now at La Salle University) and banger D.J. Johnston (Catholic University).

"We should be able to find some consistency with more practice time," he added.

The rub: Practice has been a scramble. GA has 10 teams (four girls, six boys) playing basketball and four more competing in volleyball, so gym space has been at a premium. In fact, the squad has sometimes been trekking to Conshohocken and using the Fellowship House.

That sound you're hearing is something else, because it's not the Patriots' rivals saying, "Aw, what a shame."

Elsewhere, Penn Charter and Malvern might have the best chance of pushing hard for league laurels. Each returns four rotation members.

The only new coach is Bill Dooley, of Chestnut Hill Academy. Yes, he's the same Bill Dooley who formerly was the head coach at the University of Richmond.

Per usual, league play begins in January - the 5th, at Arcadia University - with a tripleheader highlighted by a Game 3 tussle between GA and Malvern. *