Lining up for a new season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is the weekend a new season opens for Howard County youth football teams, and contrary to what some who've followed related news since the 2002 season ended might think, it's actually quite an upbeat time.

Would you believe that more Howard County boys - and a few girls - are playing football more than ever before? That would be roughly 1,800 kids. And would you believe there's more upbeat stuff along the same lines?

First, though, some context:

At the end of last season, administration of the Howard County Trojans passed contentiously from the club's founders to the county's Department of Recreation and Parks. Then the oldest youth football program, the Columbia Bulldogs, collapsed in financial disarray.

Dozens of phone calls, far more e-mails and numerous meetings involving parents that stretched over weeks kept boiling a brew of discontent and uncertainty of what to do next.

Lawsuits related to each club's problems await resolution in Howard County Circuit Court, further alienating some club leaders and parents. In the Bulldogs' folding, allegations of criminal conduct have been made publicly, although police, asked months ago to investigate, have filed no charges.

So, would you believe that in the wake of one club folding, two new ones - the Elkridge Hurricanes and the Columbia Ravens - have formed, making three new ones in two years? And that a reconstituted Bulldogs organization, now the Howard County Bulldogs, began playing yesterday, too? That means at least 200 kids who didn't play a year ago are competing in football.

Would you believe that the Central Maryland Football League, a county-based league born last season with seven clubs, now has 10 (six within the county) fielding 69 age-group teams? And that each of those teams - from 5- and 6-year-olds trying flag football to 13-year-olds - averages 24 players? And that most also have an accompanying program for cheerleaders?

All you had to do to get a positive vibe bearing out what survivors of all that organizational mayhem kept saying during the spring and summer - that kids matter most - was visit Cedar Lane Park on Aug. 30. There, scrimmages were conducted by four clubs now being administered by the rec department.

And that didn't come close to the bigger county picture, which includes three more youth clubs that operate independently: The Columbia Community Church Warriors, the Ravens and the Howard County Bruins, a club for boys too big to play in the other weight-limited programs.

Still, two of Cedar Lane's fields were in constant use from morning deep into afternoon, interrupted by maybe an hour's thunderstorm and downpour that sent players and parents scurrying for picnic pavilions and parked cars. Overall, what you saw was a definitely upbeat blur of red, white and black-wearing Trojans testing the dark green, revamped Bulldogs, with the red-and-white Western Howard County Warhawks against the brand new, orange-and-green Elkridge Hurricanes.

. "The kids have been having so much fun; they don't know they're working," said Tom Bushong, a Scaggsville-area resident who has long been active in the Savage Boys and Girls Club but was at Cedar Lane watching two sons play tackle football for the first time with the Hurricanes.

"One of the neat things is that the kids on a lot of these teams are now mixed, from all different parts of the county," Bushong said. "So many of them are used to just playing with kids they go to school with, so this is a new experience."

His son Dan, a Hammond Middle School seventh-grader whose previous football experience was in Savage's NFL Flag program, had another take. "It's more fun playing tackle," said the combination defensive and tight end.

This apparent resurgence of interest in football - although, remember, about 8,500 kids are competing in soccer this fall countywide - results from multiple factors.

One, many at Cedar Lane said, would be uncounted hours of work by recreation and parks sports supervisor Michael Milani, who helped form the new league, not to mention the Hurricanes, the Warhawks and the new Bulldogs, in addition to accepting responsibility for the Trojans.

One who praises Milani is Glenwood's Bill Grau, vice president and, with president Dan McCabe, co-founder of the Warhawks a year ago. Grau also has another opinion about what's pulling more kids into football.

"I really think it began when the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl," he said. "That made a lot of kids think that maybe they'd like to do that, too."

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