For the past month, the Carroll County Sun has run a Mount Airy rec council advertisement seeking girls of high school age for its slow-pitch softball program. But rec council competitive sports coordinatorDennis Ahalt says his phone didn't exactly ring off the hook.

TheCentral Maryland Girls Softball League, with teams from all over Carroll County, sees its 16-under division barely alive with only three teams after fielding five squads last year. Its 18-and-under divisionfolded due to lack of teams after the 1988 season.

And in the North Carroll area, the Manchester Bombers and Martin's Sheet Metal, two top traveling girls teams for high school-aged players, folded after the 1990 season.

Slow-pitch softball seems to be on the outs among local high school girls at the moment.

This decline, ironically, comes at a time when interest in slow-pitch among girls of younger ages is booming in Carroll County.

Ahalt, whose Mount Airy program dropped from five teams for older girls in 1989 to two last

year (when it disbanded) to only 11 girls signing up thisyear, cites Frederick County's youth fast-pitch program as the main culprit.

"It is the basic reason why we've had so few girls register," he said, noting that many girls now want to get a head start on their high-school careers by playing fast-pitch at the rec level.

The immediate cause of Ahalt's troubles is the Linganore Youth Athletic Association's 1990 decision to abandon slow-pitch and enter teams in Frederick County's fast-pitch leagues.

That severely damaged his program for older girls, because almost half of those players come from the Linganore area on the

Frederick County side of town, Ahalt said.

He says growing interest in spring soccer and lacrosse hasalso taken girls away from softball.

Central Maryland League commissioner George Hardinger agrees, saying that "other spring sports are competing for essentially the same pool of girls."

Hardinger added that the Amateur Softball Association's decision to realign the age brackets of its girls softball leagues several years ago may have also contributed, albeit unintentionally, to the decline in the numberof older girls softball teams.

ASA's new 16-and-under category allows only 15- and 16-year-olds.

However, turning sweet 16 often takes its toll, because many of these youngsters get their driver's licenses and abandon softball for other pursuits -- "jobs and boys," as Hardinger puts it.

As a result, he feels, there aren't enough players to fill out 16-and-under teams.

State ASA director Charles Colianni, however, says the realignment didn't affect the number of teams in older age brackets. He attributed any downturns to the fact thatthere may be fewer youngsters in the mid-teen age groups than in thepast.

Former Martin's Sheet Metal coach Bud McCulley says the number of girls in his part of the county wanting to play 16-under travel ball "seems to be in a flat

cycle now."

But he predicted thatthings will improve when younger girls in the Hampstead and Manchester in-house rec programs get older.

Ahalt and Hardinger, though, aren't as optimistic. They see current negative trends as long-term.

Ahalt said the Mount Airy program probably won't offer slow-pitch softball for high school girls next year.

Hardinger, however, is bucking those trends, and wants league coaches to start encouraging girls to play 16-under ball next year.

He also wants league members to recruit coaches for 16-under teams.

Having coaches who are committed is vital, he said, because they will recruit the players.

ButHardinger acknowledges that the communities in the league must carrythe ball if the decline is to be reversed.

"It's going to be a long-term problem unless the communities get organized and get on top of the problem," Hardinger said.

Meanwhile, Ahalt is waiting for some more telephone calls.

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