IT STARTED with one team in Columbia's early days, and that grew with the county into two programs, and then three. Which, with the growth in western Howard County, evolved into four this year.
And now, welcome to a new league, thanks largely to Howard County initiative.
The name is the Central Maryland Football and Cheerleading Association, and the first games in a 10-game season for most teams were played last weekend.
For a start-up, it's no little venture. Seven founding clubs are fielding as many as 1,400 youngsters -- boys in football, girls in cheering -- in various age groups this fall, said Allen Fleming, longtime youth coach in Columbia and founder four years ago of the Columbia Community Church Warriors.
"We started talking about forming a new league more than a year ago," said Fleming. "We," said Fleming, meant he and Ray Page, director of the Howard County Trojans, and subsequently, Mike Milani from the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, and Joe Daley, director of a large program in Catonsville.
Randallstown's Randy Carrington and Bern-el Cooper, another Baltimore countian with a group that chose not to join the new league, also have become directors.
"It's a group of good people really interested in kids," said Milani, a sports supervisor whose job includes community-based athletics.
The Trojans and Warriors have dropped ties with the nationwide Pop Warner youth football organization.
"We wanted a league that would stress sportsmanship and chances for the kids to have success at a local level," said Fleming.
"There's just too much silly stuff taking place in some programs we had been playing. Plus, we also felt that for cheerleaders -- that being such a growing activity -- we could give them opportunities to experience a wider variety of competition."
Pop Warner rules require that its teams and cheer units compete only with other Warner affiliates.
The new league retains some Pop Warner features, Fleming said, among them an everyone-plays-every-game rule and pre-game weigh-ins for safety. Academic standards will continue, with youngsters having to show satisfactory grades to continue participating.
The youngest players start with flag football that includes blocking but no tackling and progress into "instructional play," which allows coaches on the field. Players 10 and older play 11-man tackle football.
The new league's other clubs are the first-year Western Howard Warhawks, clubs from Catonsville and Randallstown in Baltimore County and two from Montgomery County -- one in Damascus, the other known as St. Peter's in Olney.
Fleming is hoping -- expecting is more like it -- to see the league grow next year.
"We already have inquiries from two more Montgomery County programs," he said. One Howard County program, the Columbia Bulldogs, has opted to continue playing in a Carroll County league.
In two years, he said, organizers are hoping for a Baltimore-area "super bowl" for youth teams, involving the larger and older Baltimore/Harford County league.
All but two clubs will enter a full slate of age-group teams. The Warhawks -- the newly formed western Howard program with 312 football players and no cheerleaders -- will field two age-group teams in the Central Maryland league, with its other teams trying the Capital Beltway League. The Randallstown program also will enter two teams in the Central Maryland league, its others staying in a Baltimore County league.
The Warhawks are backed by the Department of Recreation and Parks, after volunteers in the western part of the county sought help in establishing a program. After its formation was announced in January, originally under the name Wolfpack, the group quickly got more registrations than anticipated.
"The interesting thing," said Milani, who has administered the new club's birth, "is that with all those players, the older clubs still have the same numbers. It hasn't hurt them at all."
Milani, who also coaches in the Catonsville program, said many Central Maryland participants are glad to see the Pop Warner affiliation dropped.
"There was so much emphasis in some clubs on getting to Florida [and Pop Warner's highly publicized national title playoffs] that teams that did well locally felt they hadn't accomplished anything," he said.
Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.