Don Ellenberger chuckled as the procession of players walked briskly past where he sat at the Bachman Sports Complex the other night. Like businesswomen pulling computer cases through the concourses at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the softball players, one by one, lugged their bats and fielding and batting gloves -- the tools of their trade -- across the grass and concrete in flashy bags.
Ellenberger, the coach of No. 2 Chesapeake-Anne Arundel, couldn't help but shake his head in amusement and amazement at how big the game he has been around for more than 30 years as a player and coach has gotten -- so big that girls tote bats that cost $300 in equipment bags with their names stitched on them.
"The kids go coast to coast now," Ellenberger said. "This is the way they move from plane to plane. It's a whole lot easier."
And the game has never been bigger, especially in Anne Arundel County, where public high school softball is serious business. In seven of the past 10 years, at least one county school has won a state title, with the winning spread among five schools (Glen Burnie, Northeast, North County, Severna Park and Chesapeake).
Broadneck occupies the No. 1 spot in the area rankings, with Chesapeake just behind and Northeast ranked fifth. With Arundel at No. 9, Severna Park and Glen Burnie just below the Top 15 and all six teams in the same Class 4A East region, there's a better-than-decent chance that the county will run its streak to eight titles in 11 years when the state tournament begins next month.
Anne Arundel's intense interest in softball was on full display Friday night at Bachman, as the 24 county varsity and junior varsity teams met in the fifth annual softball festival. Six of the fields were in use for evening doubleheaders, and the stands were packed not only with supportive parents, but also with kids in their recreational league uniforms, as well as fans of the sport.
Because lacrosse is so woven into the fabric of Maryland, it can be easy to forget that softball is, in fact, the second-most popular high school sport for girls nationally behind basketball, according to statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
That tide might be changing, according to Ellenberger, as more and more of the best potential softball players are drifting to lacrosse, at least locally.
"That's where the scholarships are," Ellenberger said. "Instead of the girls playing travel ball all year long, they're now doing the lacrosse thing. And we're losing some great athletes. They're great in lacrosse, but they'd also be dominant out here."
The big stage Friday was at Field 3, where first Broadneck, then Chesapeake, wasted no time dispatching the opposition. The top-ranked Bruins (13-2) made short work of Southern, 18-1, in five innings. Pitcher Kourtney Salvarola worked only two innings, striking out the side in both. Salvarola, a sophomore, ran her record to 8-1, using the short outing to work on a changeup that looked postseason-ready.
In the nightcap, Chesapeake (15-1), the defending 4A state champion, shut out Old Mill, 10-0, in five innings on the strength of Lauren Gibson's no-hitter. Gibson, a junior and the reigning area Player of the Year, fell behind in a couple of early counts but only allowed one walk and struck out seven.
In addition, her first-inning at-bat, in which she fouled off five pitches before slugging a two-run homer to right-center field, turned out to be all the run support she would need to notch her ninth win against one loss.
That one loss came earlier to Broadneck, and the two teams appear on target to meet in the county championship game next month, as well as possibly for a berth in the state semifinals. Gibson said she glanced at Broadneck's game while Chesapeake was warming up.
"[The Bruins] played really well," Gibson said. "They're a really good team. I definitely want to see them. In the last game, we did good. We just didn't do our best. I think we can do a lot better. Hopefully, we can beat them."
You could get solid odds that a lot of people will be around to watch the game, but, then, that's just another day of softball in Anne Arundel County.