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Warmed by being on ice

Jim Karrenbauer fondly remembers his high school hockey days. He played for four years at Central Catholic High in Pittsburgh and loved being on the ice. Now, nearly 25 years later, Karrenbauer is helping a bunch of Harford County players make their own hockey memories.

High school athletes who play ice hockey often face a difficult road in Maryland. Ice hockey isn't officially recognized as a varsity or junior varsity sport by the Harford County school system or the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, so those interested must play it as a club activity and take care of all the details themselves. But those who make up the Fallston hockey team don't mind doing that - they just want to keep playing.

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Karrenbauer, 41, is in his second year as the team's coach. They're calling themselves Fallston, since the majority of their players come from that school, and they play home games at Ice World in Abingdon. The Cougars also are using a few players from other schools (C. Milton Wright and Bel Air) to field a complete team.

Those running the team oversee everything from scheduling and uniforms to the team's Web site. The players also must pay about $800 this season to rent ice time and buy uniforms, among other necessities.

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"We don't get paid; we're not in it for the personal glory," Karrenbauer said. "We're in it for kids, and it's all about the kids."

The Cougars compete in the Maryland Scholastic Hockey League. They're in Tier II, the Arundel Division of the Eastern Conference. The Cougars, who often play Anne Arundel County schools, had a 4-5 varsity record through last Thursday (along with a 1-1 mark in JV games, where seniors are not allowed to play).

Karrenbauer said his team will play about 25 games this season, depending upon how they fare in tournaments. In addition, the club is starting a middle school team this winter, to be called the Fallston Cubs, as another way to build interest in the sport.

Matt Sherrod , a senior team captain at Fallston who also plays for the Baltimore Stars under-18 travel team, said even though hockey isn't an official varsity sport, he wants the team to treat it like one.

"It's really important to us," Sherrod said. "I always make sure we get there an hour before the game to run, stretch and get dressed. The guys look up to the older guys and the captains, and we take it seriously."

Fallston junior Nick Uroda, who plays for the Baltimore Stars under-16 travel team, said Karrenbauer's style of treating hockey as more than just a club activity makes it more fun for him.

"The coach is really serious about this stuff and making it seem like a varsity sport," Uroda said. "He's getting everyone involved in playing ... and we're very competitive. It's a lot more fun."

The hockey players said they do feel somewhat slighted that their sport is not officially recognized by the MPSSAA.

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"In any sport, you want to have a lot of competition with other schools," said Colin Sanders, a right wing who is a freshman at Bel Air. "We're still glad to play, and I'd like to play for my actual school, but I can't do that."

MPSSAA executive director Ned Sparks said that only Talbot County recognizes ice hockey as a varsity sport. "That's a local decision whether or not to [do it]," he said. "The school systems have to decide."

The lack of official recognition occasionally drives some players to consider heading to a private school, as the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association recognizes hockey as a varsity sport.

However, players such as Sherrod enjoy the chance to play for their own school, even if it's in an unofficial capacity.

Sherrod - who has been one of the team's leading scorers through the early part of the season along with Brandon Boehmer, Rick Gott and Jake Brzuchalksi - said he loves having his friends come to the rink and cheer him on while he's wearing a Fallston jersey, even though he won't earn a varsity letter.

"It's my school, and when my friends come out to watch, it's almost like a varsity football game," Sherrod said. "It's more important to me to play with all of my friends there for Fallston than for my travel team. It's a different attitude."

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That's exactly what Karrenbauer wants to hear. He has a full-time job in franchise sales for Wireless Zone, but hockey remains a big part of his life. Karrenbauer still plays in an adult program and loves coaching his younger son.

Karrenbauer credits assistants Eddie Slusher, Corey Jendras and Dave Frongillo with helping him keep the team going. He's hoping the team could even expand and form a second squad in the MSHL at some point. For now, though, Karrenbauer's just glad students are getting the same chance at enjoying high school hockey that he did.

"There is a sport here that's unfortunately overshadowed by lacrosse and the other sports," Karrenbauer said. "All we're trying to do is give the kids an opportunity to play hockey."


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