The county's American Legion baseball program has undergone a radical restructuring for the upcoming season.
About the only thing thatwill remain the same is the team's name and home field.
The 18-and-under team will still be called the Dayton Raiders American Legion Baseball Club and will continue to play its home games at the Dayton Rod and Gun Club. But it will have new coaches, sponsor and schedule.
In addition, the North Central District, which the county team has won for the past six years, has added a seventh team, to be headquartered in Lansdowne. Players from Howard, Oakland Mills and Hammond high schools will be eligible to play for it.
Dayton draws players from Mount Hebron, Centennial, Atholton and Glenelg onlyin order to meet national American Legion population guidelines.
Steve Walker and Marvin Whittaker, the head coaches for the past fiveseasons, will not participate in the program this year. In those years, the Raiders compiled a record of 178-58, won five district titlesand finished second
twice in the state tournament.
"We had a good ride but felt it was just time to move on," Walker, 39, said. Walker, the director of student supervision at Pallotti High in Laurel, hoped to be coaching this spring at Capital College in Laurel, but the fledgling program did not materialize as expected. The college never built a baseball field.
Part of the reason Walker and Whittaker left the American Legion program after putting so much time and energy into it was the constant need to raise money to support the team.
"We got tired of wondering how to pay the bills," Walker said.
The two moved the team from Glenelg High to its Dayton location in 1988, after finding an abandoned field that resembled a jungle and cleaning it up. They built a press box and dugouts and put up a fence designed to carry advertisements, one of several money-raising efforts.
With the Howard County Youth Program as the team's new sponsor, newhead coach George Bickerton should not have those money worries.
HCYP has long fielded one of the county's largest youth intramural baseball and softball programs. In the past few years it has expanded its horizons to travel teams. Last year it fielded 13-14 and 15-16 baseball travel teams.
HCYP was evidently so happy to land the American Legion 18-and-under team that it has added a 16-and-under team, also to be called the Dayton Raiders.
Bickerton, 53, director of emergency planning for the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a well-known figure in county sports circles.
Since 1973 he has been commissioner of the county Adult Softball League, which includes 160 teams this year. Last summer he coached the 15-16 HCYP travel team, which won two league titles.
"Wehope to be just as competitive in the future as American Legion teams have been in the past," Bickerton said.
One big plus for ensuring the quality of the program should be the restructuring of the schedule. In the past, Dayton played each team in its North Central District four times a season. Because some of the teams were weak, the arrangement made for many boring games -- and a number of forfeits towardthe end of each schedule.
This year Dayton will play each district opponent twice. Also, it will each of the seven teams in the Montgomery County District twice.
All 26 games will count toward the final district standings. The district winner qualifies for the state tournament, which no county team has won.
"The level of competition should be raised by the new schedule, and that may help to attract quality players to our team instead of losing them to other competitiveprograms that can recruit statewide," Bickerton said.
The North Central District is made up of teams from Dayton, Dundalk, Essex, Towson, Parkville, Dewey Lowman and, now, Lansdowne.
The Montgomery district consists of Cecil Saxon, Damascus, Gaithersburg Post 295, Gaithersburg Post 104, Wheaton, Bethesda and Rockville teams.
Bickerton will have two assistant coaches, Gary Kuykendall and Tim O'Donnell.The commissioner of HCYP's travel teams, Rick Deming, will also helpout when his schedule permits.
The Raiders will conduct their final tryout at noon Saturday on the Dayton field. The team's first gameis not until June 3, and Bickerton expects to play about 50 games this season.
"We hope to play in a couple of out-of-town tournamentsand host a Memorial Day tournament," he said. "It should be an exciting season."
He's right about that. Walker and Whittaker, both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, will be missed, after their great contribution in keeping the American Legion program going. During the late 1970s there had been no team for lack of coaching.