Gearing up

The Baltimore Sun

If you're seeking the boundary between Ravens country and Steelers territory, look no farther than the floor of a ballroom in Hagerstown.

The dividing line that separates fans of the two NFL teams will run down the middle of the Grand Ballroom at the Hager Hall Conference and Event Center. The owners of the expansive complex have invited fan clubs of both teams to watch tomorrow's AFC Championship showdown, and they will split the room.

Purple-and-black chairs on one side, yellow-and-black on the other. Separated by a table decorated with the colors of both teams. The setup supports the belief among many that the Western Maryland town is the unofficial demarcation between the state's predominantly Ravens fan base to the east and that of the Steelers to the west.

The playoff meeting between the two heated rivals promises to make Hagerstown one of the more electrifying places in the state tomorrow. For Ravens fans, it's an opportunity to show their allegiance in a part of the state where often you can't tell who's the home team.

"It's difficult sometimes," said Donnie Stotelmyer, president of Ravens Roost No. 7, the Hagerstown branch and the westernmost outpost of the popular Ravens contingent.

"The Ravens are a Maryland team, and you're rooting for the home team, and you feel like an outsider."

Stotelmyer's group plans to watch the game at Hager Hall alongside the local branch of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Maryland, which typically feels more at home in these parts.

The club members watch regular-season games at the adjacent Cancun Cantina nightclub, which means that on any given Sunday, they fill the large parking lot with black-and-gold tailgate parties.

The 300-member club also stages an annual golf outing with a Steelers player as a guest, and the club is one reason that Pittsburgh players make guest appearances at the local shopping hub, the Valley Mall.

It gets worse for Ravens fans who visit the Colonial Sports Bar and Grill across town.

The place is filled with Steelers paraphernalia - including an outdoor sign displaying the score of Pittsburgh's victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL three years ago. Logos for the Maryland Lottery hang on both sides of the sign.

Bar owner and Steelers fan David Leazier once hung a couple of Ravens signs outside the entrance, figuring at least some space should be reserved for the purple and black.

Steelers fans went berserk.

"They harassed me so much about it that we made a bet and I said, 'OK, the next time the teams play, if the Steelers win, I'll take it down,' " said Leazier, a native of Johnstown, Pa. "The Steelers won."

The Colonial is home to the 250-member Original Steelers Fan Club of Hagerstown.

Like other establishments across the United States and in the Caribbean that host Pittsburgh clubs, the Colonial and the Cancun Cantina have been designated as "Steeler bars." On game days, fans converge on such venues in droves for a Terrible Towel twirling time.

"We'll have a couple of Ravens fans come here during the games, but not many," fan club President Mike Danley said about the Colonial. "They know it's a Steeler bar."

It's not just Steeler fans who are crowding out Ravens backers in Western Maryland. The Washington Redskins claim a sizable number of supporters here, too.

Stotelmyer estimates the fan distribution in Hagerstown and surrounding areas is 40 percent for the Steelers, and 30 percent each for the Ravens and Redskins.

But when you get farther out, into Frostburg and Garrett County, there's no doubt whose fans hold sway.

"You're in Steelers country," said Gregg Delauney, a Ravens Roost No. 7 member.

Divided fan loyalty within a state is not uncommon, particularly when areas are bordered by more than one team from a given league.

For example, although the NFL's New York Giants play in New Jersey, the state's loyalties are divided between Giants fans in North Jersey and Philadelphia Eagles fans in South Jersey, which borders Philadelphia. Those loyalties were on display last weekend when the Giants and Eagles met in the NFL playoffs.

And although Montgomery and Prince George's counties are less than an hour from Baltimore, fan loyalties are tilted heavily toward teams in Washington, which borders both counties.

Yet what makes Hagerstown different is that it's less than a 1 1/2 -hour drive from Baltimore but three hours from Pittsburgh. Why so many Steelers fans?

"A lot of it goes back to when the Baltimore Colts left the area. People started going with the Steelers," said Danley, who is originally from Washington, Pa. "Also, I just meet a lot of people in the area who are originally from Western and Central Pennsylvania."

Indeed, Delauney said that although "it hurts" being surrounded by so many fans of another state's team, Western Maryland's location makes it understandable.

"If I walk out my front door," he said, "I go west or north, and within 10 minutes I'm in another state, either Pennsylvania to the north or West Virginia to the west. Go another hour south, and I'm in Virginia. It's not like we're in the heart of Maryland."

Delauney said that he will attend the event at Hager Hall, where the owners say they expect as many as 400 people. He said he expects to absorb some barbs if the Steelers are in control of the game.

"I'll dish out some if the Ravens are playing well," he said.

Hager Hall co-owner Michael Malone of Pasadena, a Ravens fan and season-ticket holder, said that although fans of both teams are fiercely loyal, he doesn't anticipate any raucousness. And Steelers fan club President Tony Paci agreed.

"I've been in this town for 40 years," Paci said, "and just because they're sitting over there [on the Ravens side,] that doesn't mean they're not my friends."

AFC TITLE GAME: 6:30 p.m. tomorrow, Chs 13, 9

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