THE CENTRAL LEAGUE looks like a mix of Springfield, Ridley, Lower Merion and Conestoga for the league championship. But if there is one team that could have stronger team chemistry than the rest, that team might be Springfield.

The Cougars return four starters from a 18-9 campaign, when they reached the PIAA Class AAA District 1 championship game, losing to Holy Ghost Prep.

"I like this group," Cougars coach Kevin McCormick said. "I can see ourselves, Ridley, Conestoga and, of course, Lower Merion all in there for the league title. I have a real nice team, and it's a Central League that doesn't have a Division I recruit right now, and that puts the league on a more level playing field. But you have to keep an eye on Lower Merion, because they seem to play by a different set of standards than everyone else. They have a fifth-year senior and a few transfers that have come in, so you always have to be mindful of them as league contenders."

This year will also mark something different for Springfield, Strath Haven and Marple Newtown, three traditional Class AAA schools. They will move to the Class AAAA level, leaving Harriton (AAA) as the only Central League school not classed AAAA.

"It is a different animal, but our first focus is the Central League," McCormick said. "And the way our league schedule breaks, we open with Ridley and Conestoga, so we'll know fast how the league could shape up within the first week."

Springfield will be led by 6-foot senior guard Zack DeVito, the Cougars' leading scorer last year with a 14-point average, along with seniors Steve Baker, Dave Carpenter and Adam Washington.

"We share the ball well, we have some guys that shoot it, and it's a fun group that has been playing together for a while, a lot like the Penncrest team [which won the Central League title] last year," McCormick said. "What we'll have to be aware of is with this move to [Class] AAAA, playoff berths aren't guaranteed anymore. The seedings are based on a point system, and doing well in the league could lead to a top-eight seed, which can get you two home games. But before we think anything about that, we have to get through a tough Central League first, which has good coaches from top to bottom."

Figure on Ridley being contenders again, after going 16-9, returning starting guards Kevin Garling and Ton Manning. Forward Shawn Church and guards Dan Staiber and Norm Donkin also return.

"The key for our success this year will be to stay in a stance on defense, protect the lane and rebound," Ridley coach Keith Heinerichs said. "If we do that on defense, share the ball and move hard on offense, then we can compete every night we step on the floor. Early on, we need our returning players to provide leadership on offense and defense."

Upper Darby gets a nice bonus with the return of Terrance Bridgers, an athletic 6-5 senior, who comes back with guards Brandon Hashim and D.J. Johnson.

At Haverford High, coach Terry McNichol has back a nucleus that could surprise a few teams, returning Patrick Morgan, Pierre Charles, Eric Falasco and Brandon Johnson.

"While they are young, they are not inexperienced," McNichol said. "We hope they continue to improve and develop as the year progresses."

Strath Haven coach Tom Dougherty likes his depth, and he could play as many as 10 in his rotation, returning Jake Enterlin, Christian Martin, Chris Keenan, Omar Randall, Chazz Fisher and Bryan Downs.

"We need to get off to a good start," Dougherty said. "My concerns about moving up to AAAA, and the Central league has very good teams and good coaching this year."

Garnet Valley will be without last year's leading scorer, Joe DiCarlo, a junior who's committed to Georgia for baseball and is throwing his concentration into that sport. But new Jaguars coach Joe Rapczynski does return 6-4 senior Joe Schiavo and is looking for 6-4 junior Noah Scott to contribute.

Defending league champion Penncrest was hit hard by graduation. The Lions went a school-record 24-6 last year and made the state playoffs for coach Mike Doyle, who will look toward Ian Campbell and Ben Davis to carry the team. The Lions will need support from Alex Mercer, Alex Graham, Andy Ayers and Eddie Baxter, all junior varsity players last year.

At Marple Newtown, the Tigers will start four juniors that have had considerable varsity playing time, Ryan Furst, Andrew Brandt, Pat McGee and Joe Kelly. Seniors Kurt Johnson, Drew Rote and Ryan Everly are also part of coach Gerry Doemling's rotation. Senior Brad Standen, a 6-2 forward/center, will also play a vital role.

Radnor could be a wild card. Red Raiders coach Mike McBride has back good size, in 6-5 Cemeron Dunson, 6-3 Peter Wallace and 6-4 Kyle Furtaw, along with athletic 6-foot senior guard Connor Walsh, a Division I baseball commit to Cincinnati, and Erik Eichinger.

"If they play together at both ends, we can compete with any team in the Central League," McBride said. "We have decent height and a few outside shooters, so we aren't one-dimensional this year."

DELCO 7

The top seven basketball teams playing in Delaware County:

1. Penn Wood

2. Chester

3. Springfield

4. Ridley

5. Glen Mills

6. Upper Darby

7. Strath Haven