91-team tourney is a testament to growth of fast-pitch softball


GIRLS FAST-PITCH softball - you know, windmill-type pitchers - is this weekend's county sports focal point, with the National Softball Association's 91-team Maryland championships being decided at Rockburn Branch, Cedar Lane and Centennial parks.

The tournament, which began Friday evening, reflects the fast-pitch game's increasing popularity, said Bill Dowell, NSA's area director, who lives in Pasadena.

"Even in the mid-1980s, we didn't have enough teams to put four in some age brackets," he said. Now, only Maryland's smallest counties don't have at least one team competing.

Titles will be decided today for players 10-, 12-, 14-, 16- and 18-and-under.

Anne Arundel County - where Dowell says mothers who started the fast-pitch game there are now beginning to coach their daughters - has the most entrants with 24 teams.

Frederick County, with eight teams, is next, with Howard, Charles and Montgomery counties entering seven teams apiece.

Five Howard teams are from the Howard County Youth Program, and two are independents - the 10-and-under Maryland Chill, a first-year squad of mainly Ellicott City and Elkridge girls coached by another Anne Arundel veteran of the sport, Mike Rock, and the 16-and-under Maryland Inferno, coached by Jeff King.

Two 16-and-under teams are from HCYP, with one each in the 10-, 12- and 14-and-under brackets. The HCYP entrants show progress in that organization, which began phasing in fast-pitch just two years ago.

About 90 girls are on travel teams this spring, with another 600 in rec-level ball - all fast-pitch.

"There has been dramatic improvement from the girls since the conversion," said Tom Humphreys, HCYP's softball commissioner.

"It's a much more interesting and exciting game," he said.

The NSA squads are made up of "select" players, meaning top-level athletes hand-picked for the competitive teams, some of which play as many as 60 games a year. Instead of leagues, NSA select teams compete in tournaments - sometimes with the same opponents - each weekend.

State title games in the 16- and 18-and-under brackets, featuring some of the state's best high school players, begin at 2 p.m. today on two Cedar Lane Park diamonds. Title games for the 10- and 12-and-under brackets are scheduled for 12:20p.m. today at two Rockburn Branch diamonds.

The 14-and-under girls decide their title today at Fairland Regional Park, on Laurel's Prince George's County side.

Winners qualify for NSA's A-level world series in Columbus, Ohio, this summer.

Is Chuck dry yet?

Chuck Daniels, the retired Columbian hiking the Appalachian Trail south-to-north at age 60, details the misery of yet more rain - nine days straight this time, through all of Connecticut and much of Massachusetts - in his most recent journal entries, available via the Howard County Striders Web site (www.striders.net). Excerpts:

May 22, Upper Goose Pond, Mass: "The trails are flooded. ... I've lost my balance six times when my footing slipped in mud. ... Boardwalks into Tyingham are in major need of repair. Some are underwater, and dozens of boards are rotted with one end in the water. ... If several hikers try to walk on the boardwalk at the same time, the walkway will probably collapse. ...

"The sky turns dark, and hail the size of peas starts falling, followed by heavy rain. I just stand in the center of the trail, making like an umbrella with my pack cover until the rain slows down. Now the flooded trails turn to flowing streams of hail."

May 24, his 109th hiking day, starting 20 miles from a planned bed-and-breakfast stop in Dalton, Mass.: "Rain ... has flooded everything, creating the worst trail conditions I have ever seen. I cannot get any wetter, so I just slosh and wade through the streams with my boots on. ...

"I try to remember the drought from last summer and the brush fires in Florida. I'm almost ready to trade. ... I can't thank [a Dalton laundromat owner] enough for waiting an extra 25 minutes after closing time for my things to dry. As I leave, thankful to be dry again, I note the sky sports dark rain clouds, and I even feel a sprinkle.

"I look up and ask, 'What more do Youwant from me? I've got nothing to give!'"

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