Stop me if you've read something similar to this in a previous column, but I've always held that my favorite periods of the work year are when the final Aegis All-Harford athlete has his or her picture taken. At that point, the most stressful, thankless task of my job is over. The coaches' nominations have been combed through and obsessed over, statistics have been crunched, the chosen few have been picked and ushered to our office in Bel Air to have their photos snapped, and, depending on what season just ended, I've got either three or six months before the cycle starts again. So as not to seem lazy, or indifferent, let me say that I take the selection process extremely seriously, and I'm very proud of the All-Harford teams that I pick, but I wouldn't wish the job of choosing them on an enemy. It's hard, let's leave it at that. So, with the stress behind me, here's some observations I jotted down during the photo sessions for the 2011-12 winter All-Harford teams.
Come on, smile: To put it simply, the female athletes almost always smile in their photographs, while only about half of the guys are willing to show some teeth. There are the rare girls who give wan smiles, because they're self-conscious about their braces or otherwise preoccupied, but you never have to say, "come on, smile," to female selections. I'd love to go through every All-Harford section from the last five years so there would be statistical proof, but if I had to run down the boys teams from most to least likely to smile for photos, it would go like this: 1. tie between swimming and track; 2. tennis; 3. volleyball; 4. golf; 5. soccer; 6. tie between lacrosse and baseball; 7. basketball; 8. football; 9. wrestling.
I remember sitting in on a picture session at the old Aegis office over on Hayes Street. That year's All-Harford wrestlers were shuffling in and out of the studio where Nicole Munchel was photographing them. Most offered up completely flat, expressionless faces, but a few looked like their underwear was bunching up (which is what I generally look like in photos). I said to one of them, "hey man, your mom will love it if you give a little smile," and he, in a lipless ventriloquist voice, responded, "I am smiling!" Fair enough.
Underclassmen: Just going from memory, I don't' think that I've ever picked a freshman athlete for the first-team All-Harford in baseball, boys basketball or boys soccer (though I quit picking the boys soccer teams two years ago, when sports editor Randy McRoberts and I switched). With field hockey, softball, girls soccer and boys volleyball, there's been a few freshman to make it on, but I could probably count less than a dozen in the last five years. With swimming, however, it's a regular parade of freshman. Combining the girls and boys squads, there were four freshman on this year's first team, and seven on the second team. Counting all underclassmen, there were 26, which makes exactly half of the 52 spots on the on first and second teams.
Why so many youngsters on the swim teams? It's an interesting query, but, as with most questions of that sort, I don't think there's any easy answer. It's certainly not because swimming is less physically challenging than other sports, though there's a baseball coach I know who would say, "try and have one of those freshman swimmers hit a hard curve in the dirt." The easiest idea to venture would be that swimming, like track and tennis, is a sport in which the relatively young can excel at the highest levels. Australia's Ian Thorpe won three gold medals and set three world records at the 2000 Summer Olympics when he was a few days short of his 18th birthday, and if you averaged out the age of the field at any world-class swimming event, I'm sure it would fall somewhere around 20 to 22. With baseball, football and basketball, though you have anomalies like Alex Rodriguez, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who were all at the top level in their teen years, most of the elite-level athletes with long careers are going to enter the highest professional league at 22 to 23 years old, peak at 28 or 29, and still be able to put up league-average numbers into their mid-30s. On the other hand, you don't see many over-30 swimmers still making the national team.