Soccer tourney a star player


After a quarter-century, Bill Simstill remembers the rain.

"It rained the whole weekend - all that mud and uniforms to be washed," said Sim, director of the first Columbia Invitational Soccer Tournament, played 25 years ago this weekend. "The sun didn't come out until the final championship game on Monday."

Jim Carlan remembers being on the telephone, desperate, two days before kickoff on that Memorial Day weekend, trying to line up one last team.

"Shrine of the Little Flower in Baltimore, I think it was," he said. "It was one of the CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] clubs. Anyway, they came."

Thus was born what has become metropolitan Baltimore's largest single youth sports event, a tournament that has become one of the best known and most competitive in the nation, but also faces a threat next season.

As originators recall it, the first tournament began with 32 boys teams in four age brackets and, at most, 16 girls teams, most of them local, though a few came from Connecticut, Long Island, New Jersey and Northern Virginia.

This year's Columbia celebration of soccer, which began yesterday and ends tomorrow, has 284teams - 130boys, 154girls - competing for titles within their age brackets from virtually every state on the East Coast and eastern Canadian province. Brackets start with players younger than 10 and go up to under-19s. The largest brackets are for 16- and 17-year-olds, prime recruiting age for colleges.

At last count, coaches representing about 300colleges from as far away as Arizona and Colorado were registered with organizers. And Lauren Gregg, former assistant coach of the U.S. national women's team who represents a proposed women's pro league, was to attend.

"When we started, this was a nice little tournament, and everybody had a good time," said Carlan, who for the past six years has been president of the tournament's parent, the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County.

"But there were no illusions of grandeur. Soccer was embryonic," he said. "There were a bunch of little clubs; there were no giants. The little parishes out of Baltimore drew from their congregations. And we were the same way. We only had three villages in Columbia."

Elias Ashey, who became girls coordinator in 1978, recalled that "the field grew from 57 teams in 1978 to 140 in 1982. The biggest challenge was balancing the teams. You didn't really know what you were going to get when teams came from out of state. Sometimes they would send their records in; other times they wouldn't."

The tournament focus changed dramatically when current director Louise Waxler took charge in 1988.

"Very few teams were turned away [then], and there were some blowouts," Waxler said. "Our goal was to get the best teams to compete in Columbia.

"It took time, but as teams started to improve and we received more applications, the tournament became very selective," she said. We're looking at state cup finalists, regional finalists, regional champions and national champions."

Eight years ago, with some strong teams going elsewhere because of poor fields at county schools here, several age groups, as well as championship matches, were moved to Fort Meade's parade grounds off Route 175.

"We've always been cramped for good field space," said Waxler, calling the Fort Meade arrangement "a super relationship."

The Columbia tournament faces stiffer competition for the cream of the competitive crop next year, when Potomac's Memorial Day Tournament moves to the nearly completed Montgomery Soccerplex in Germantown, where fields tailored to the sport.

"The Soccerplex could hurt us if we don't get our own complex," said Carlan, whose organization has encountered obstacles - at least twice - in finding acreage for its facilities.

"We'll always have a tournament," he said. "There is no question about that. There are plenty of teams around. What will happen is that the quality of the teams can shift. The elite teams are going to go where the best playing surface is."

"We would be naive to think that a 24-field complex, which is immaculate, would not affect the Columbia tournament," said Waxler. "But it's not just the fields. We have been continually told that we are one of the best-organized tournaments in the country."

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