There's a new game in Baltimore public schools -- girls varsity soccer.
The inaugural six-team City-Wide league is just a few games old, and the coaches -- from Poly, City, Western, Southern, Lake Clifton and Patterson -- barely know each other. But its games are attracting a fair share of curious fans.
Take Wednesday's Poly-City game, which Poly trailed, 6-0, in an eventual 7-1 loss, when a Poly student stood on the sideline asking questions about the rules.
"Do they have to go to a certain score before the game's over, or what?" asked junior Raquel Wells, who learned that the high school game has 40-minute halves.
"Oh, I didn't know that," she said. "I'm just here to watch my buddy [Poly goalie/fullback Kisha Washington], but personally, I think it's boring."
Thus begins the city's journey into a new world.
Girls soccer has increased its participation level from 23,475 in 1979 to 135,302 last year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, and improved from No. 12 to No. 6 on the popularity list for high school sports.
So popular is the sport in Maryland that "we'll soon be proposing to separate the 3A and 4A schools for state tournament for girls," said Vivienne Dailey, the state chairman for girls soccer.
She said the City-Wide teams, which play each other twice in a round-robin format, can gain enough points to play in this year's Class 4A-3A playoffs. City, Lake Clifton and Patterson will compete in Region I, Southern in Region II and Poly and Western in Region III.
"It's great that the city schools have gotten involved," said Dailey, an athletic director at Lansdowne High. "Prince George's County schools joined with seven schools two years ago and added three more teams last year."
Each City-Wide team had to generate its own money for uniforms.
"We ordered uniform tops, which arrived two days later," said Patterson's Roger Wrenn, the school's athletic director. "Shorts, the girls have to provide themselves."
"When the proposal [from Don Williams, city schools curriculum specialist] came out last spring, we had no idea who would answer the bell, but it's great that we have six schools," said City coach Bill Huey, whose 13-member team improved to 2-1.
Poly, behind a hat trick from Stacie Hamilton, improved to 2-1-1 with Friday's 8-0 victory over Southern.
"Our league is basically starting from ground zero," said Huey, a physical education teacher at Diggs-Johnson Middle School.
Huey, while lauding the girls' enthusiasm, said the skill level is limited because the city offers no recreation programs in girls soccer.
"Although we've tried giving most of the girls some exposure in gym classes at the middle-school and high-school level," he said, "we know that the skills aren't going to match those of other programs outside of the city."
The league's future could depend on the development of freshman standouts like City's Lisa Smith (seven goals), Poly's Jennifer Mangano (five goals) and Patterson's Christina Reinhardt (three goals, three assists).
Smith's years of recreation experience as a guard in basketball and a shortstop in Little League baseball have given her an advantage over many of the league's players. Another advantage, said the 14-year-old Pigtown native, is that "I grew up kicking a ball around with the boys in my neighborhood."
Patterson (2-1-1), led by Reinhardt and Tracy Conner (four goals, two assists), the squad's only senior, had emerged as the league's best team before losing, 4-1, to Western on Friday on two goals by Tiffany Chaplinski.
A turnout of 19 girls, including eight freshmen, has Clippers coach Ed Brzozowski looking toward the future.
"The girls really feel good about being the first to play city soccer, and as such, everyone seems to be giving them respect," said Brzozowski. "We've had some good crowds at our games, and I'm really pleased at the support we've gotten from the athletic department. The girls really take it seriously, and they're very enthusiastic."
Poly coach Tim Schmidt has 16 players on his club, but said some are still grasping the concept of being on a varsity soccer team.
"Sometimes, they miss practices for going to lunch with their moms, things like that. But I think as we go along, they'll start to understand it and be more serious," said Schmidt.