One of the most interesting things about covering recreation sports is discovering an existing program that has dramatically expanded or a new one that has started.
This year's growth in the Carroll County Girls Basketball League from 23 to 32 teams is one example; another is the recent start-up of youth rec basketball in Mount Airy.
But the most interesting discovery in a long time is not a new or expanded rec program.
Instead, it is one that's been around for years, but one that many, including myself, knew nothing about until recently.
This activity centers around the basketball leagues operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormon Church.
These leagues, for men, women, girls of middle school and high school age, boys of high school age, and boys in the 12-13 age bracket (the Deacons Division), have existed for many years.
The three Carroll County Mormon churches, or wards as they are called, have participated in these leagues since the early to mid 1980s.
While their congregations are small, ranging from about 300 to 400, the county churches generally enter teams in all categories.
These hoop loops operate in much the same manner as any other league, offering bothregular and postseason play.
Ward teams play a regular-season schedule against other teams within its stake (an administrative unit that governs the wards).
The stake center is the headquarters, whichacts as both administrative hub and social center for wards.
And,these centers also act as game sites because they have full-length basketball courts. The three local wards have only short practice courts.
The Mount Airy and Westminster wards are part of the Frederick Stake, while Hampstead belongs to the Seneca Stake in Montgomery County.
In March, after the regular season, all wards' teams can playin their respective stakes' playoffs. The top two teams in each age and gender category in the stake playoffs qualify for the regionals in Washington.
Westminster has had the most successful local team in recent years.
It's men's team has won the Frederick Stake championship the past three years and took the Washington regional crown in1988 and 1989.
"That team could have held its own with any team in the Carroll County Men's Basketball League," said Tom Lewis, who coached the Mount Airy ward men's squad in 1989-1990 and now oversees Mount Airy's newly established youth rec basketball program.
Mormonteams allow outsiders to play, although only two may be on court at one time.
In fact, anybody who comes out makes the team.
Not surprisingly, the ages and experience of the players on some teams varies widely.
On the men's teams for example, players range in age from late teens to mid-50s; some have little or no experience while others have played college ball.
Hampstead Ward men's coach George Harmon can attest from bitter experience to the latter.
His team found itself matched in last year's stake playoffs against a squad with a 6-foot-11 center who played varsity basketball at Brigham Young University in Utah.
"Our tallest player was 6-4, and they beat us pretty bad," said Harmon, who added with a laugh, "I hope he's taken a job in another stake this year."
While all three local wards have men's teams, the basketball program was originally started for youth, Lewis said.
"It was something for youngsters to do. A lot of them weren't good enough to make their high school teams," he explained.
The girls teams accept players from ages 12 to 18 and, like the men, seem to have a little bit of everything in terms of player profiles.
Mount Airy girls coach Judy Seidel has team members with experience levels ranging from novice to high school varsity, although like the boys teams, varsity players are limited to two quarters on the court.
Each player must play at least one quarter and the more experienced ones often are on the court with the novice players, Seidel says.
The quality of the games thus varies widely, depending on who is on the floor, adds Seidel, whose Mount Airy team is currently tiedfor first in the Frederick Stake with a 3-1 record.
She says she has no problem attracting players.
"They come because it's fun to belong," she said. "It's not so much winning, just participating. They're part of a group."
Sports are part of a broader Mormon Church program that focuses on youth.
Eldersburg resident Rocky Lee, who coaches the Hampstead Ward high school boys team, said this program also includes dances and youth conferences.
As might be expected, Mormon basketball, as well as softball, volleyball and other sports activities the church offers, is intended to promote socializing among congregation members as much as competition between them.
Brian Cook, who plays for the Westminster men's team, says "It's a way to gettogether and have fellowship and a good time as well."
But while the leagues are church-oriented, those competitive fires still burn.
"It's not supposed to be (blood and guts), but sometimes it's likethat, and people lose sight of why they're here," Cook said.
In general, though, the basketball program seems to meet its twin goals of fellowship and recreation for all congregation members.
"We think we have a good program and it works. Everybody has a good time," says Lewis.
NOTE: THE LAST SIX PARAGRAPHS AND PART OF THE PREVIOUS SENTENCE DID NOT APPEAR IN THE PAPER.