It's not hard to pick out Shelby Stang on the soccer field.
As a senior midfielder for the Long Reach Allied soccer team, she's the one running the show. She's the one dribbling the ball up field and directing traffic. She's the one with all eyes on her.
But if you watch long enough, it becomes apparent that it's not soccer skills that truly put Stang in the spotlight.
It's instead what she chooses to do with them.
On Long Reach's seven-player coed squad, each of the players except for Stang has some kind of physical or mental disability. Yet through the team's six regular season games, she is the only one still without a goal.
"I could probably go out and score a lot of goals, but no one would benefit from that. This isn't about me," said Stang. "I'm out there to assist and help my teammates get the most out of it that they can. Seeing them score a goal and build confidence in themselves is a great feeling."
It's the unselfish attitudes from student athletes like Stang at Long Reach that have made the first season of Allied Sports in Howard County a resounding success, according to the program's chief consultant Chuck Struhar.
On stadium fields around the county this fall nine schools have fielded Allied soccer teams and, with a mix of students with and without disabilities, have been able to compete in a fun and healthy environment.
"I'm absolutely ecstatic with how things are going, the students are getting out of it exactly what we hoped they would," Struhar said. "It really all stems from the cooperation we're getting from all our groups of students out there. You see players like (Stang) at Long Reach out there getting the ball to players she wants to see score … that's sports at its best right there.
"The great thing is that there are several players just like her on teams all over the county."
Getting the program off the ground
The Allied Sports program in Howard County, which will also include bowling this winter, along with golf and softball in the spring, finally got going this fall after talks began several years ago.
County Coordinator of Athletics Mike Williams, in conjunction with several of the county's Athletic and Activities Managers, spent a lot of time mapping out the guidelines, necessary facilities and equipment that would be needed. That groundwork ahead of time made it so that once funding was in place, the program could hit the ground running.
"The biggest difference I've noticed from when I was working in Baltimore County, where they've had (Allied Sports) in place for a long time, is that Mike was committed to making sure everything was done right the first time," Oakland Mills AAM Troy Stevenson said. "There's separate funding, no hand-me-down uniforms from varsity or JV teams … this isn't something that was just slapped together."
Allied soccer games are played on fields running the width of a football field sideline to sideline. Each team has six field players and a goalie, charged with protecting a goal roughly eight feet wide.
Considering Allied Sports hadn't been done before, though, coaches certainly had their hands full with getting a full squad together.
"I was a little nervous what the interest was going to be like because, unfortunately, there is a little bit of a stigma to it," said Oakland Mills coach Nicole Stagmer, who is a para-educator at the school who has worked previously with all nine kids on her team.
"But I did some recruiting and once they came out they all realized that this really is a lot of fun. It gives these kids a great opportunity to be active."
Finding the right mix
The size of each team around the county varies, with squads having as many as 11 or 12 players. Some schools don't have quite enough for seven on seven, so those games are played with one or two less field players on both sides.
Skill levels vary and most teams have at least one player without a disability. Those other students are traditionally ones that may not have enough ability or confidence to play JV or varsity, or in other cases are simply individuals interested in giving back.
Stang is among those that fall into the latter category.
A year-round swimmer, she actually heard about the Allied program while serving as an aid for a special education class at Long Reach. Ironically enough, before this season, Stang hadn't played on a soccer team since she was seven years old.
But, as she points out, it wasn't the sport of soccer that drew her in; it was the mission of the program.
"I'm not a soccer player, but I figured I would give it a try because it sounded like fun," she said. "And you know, it's been even better than I thought. We're a team out there, pulling for one another and competing just like any other sport. The only difference is, it's not all about winning or losing."
Each team played six or seven regular season games, leading up to the season-ending Pumpkin Bowl, Oct. 19 at Western Regional Park. All nine teams will be in attendance and will participate in a round-robin format that begins at 6 p.m.
Struhar says it should be a great sendoff to an inaugural campaign that he hopes leads to bigger and better things in the future.
"When you start up a program like we did with Allied Soccer, no one has a clue what the product is going to be or what to expect," Struhar said. "But I think with what's gone on this fall, people are genuinely impressed. We've learned some things, there are always going to be tweaks needed, but the most important thing is that a foundation is in place.
"We've got ourselves something to build on going forward."