They came by the thousands: Cult-like followers from a dozen states who gathered for three days of dribbling, passing, shooting and sun.
The 16th annual Columbia Invitational Soccer Tournament attracted 200 teams from as far away as Missouri, Illinois, Massachusetts and Georgia over the Memorial Day weekend.
"In spite of the overwhelming heat, everything ran pretty smoothly," said tournament director Louise Waxler. "All the teams competing here are among the best in their states, if not state champions.
"Among our own girls teams who made the finals, all but one will be vying for the state cup next weekend. Over the years, we've earned a reputation for top-notch play for all the age groups," Waxler said.
Six girls and four boys teams from Columbia advanced to the championship finals at Centennial High School Monday.
The three victorious girls squads were: The Columbia Cougars, an under-12 travel team thatedged the Prince William (Va.) Tops, 1-0; the Columbia Spirit, under-13, which defeated the Medford (N.J.) Strikers, 2-0; and the Columbia Command, under-16, which shut out the Medford (N.J.) Strikers, 3-0.
Placing second were: the Columbia Cannonade, an under-10 team that lost to a Bethesda squad, 4-1; the Columbia Magic, under-11, which lost to the Marlton (N.J.) Strikers, 3-1; and the Columbia Cleats, under-14, which bowed to the Chesapeake Bay (Md.) Thunder, 1-0.
In the under-13 boys age group, the Columbia City United rolled over the the 78 Aces (N.J.), 4-2.
Three other Columbia boys teams made the finals but finished second: The Columbia Select, an under-10 squad, lost to the McLean (Va.) Magic, 2-1; the Columbia Millwall, under-17, lost to the Union (N.J.) Lancers, 4-1; and the Columbia Diplomats, anunder-19 team, were edged by the Boston (Mass.) Bolts, 2-1.
Mike Curry, a member of the tournament committee, says that although the level of competition is fierce, the tournament is still a friendly event.
"Three-quarters of the out-of-state teams ages 16 and under stay with host families in the county," Curry said. "It's a way to build friendships and meet others who are just as enthusiastic about soccer as we are.
"Most of the older teams, however, prefer to stay in hotels, away from their competition," he said. "I guess it's hard to focus on beating someone you just had dinner and watched TV with the night before."
Also visiting Columbia were two guest referees from Scotland, making their second straight appearance in the tournament.
"The men bring an international flavor to the tourney," said Curry, a goal-keeping specialist who works with the SAC travel team goalies once a week. "They have a lot of expertise."
The SAC presented Lincoln Phillips, a former national team player from Trinidad and Tobago, with the Jack and Ellie Boussy Award, a memorial award for hiscontributions to youth soccer in Howard County.
Phillips, also a member of the tournament committee, previously coached several SoccerAssociation of Columbia teams and is now head soccer coach at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Every year at the tourney, SAC awards $1,000 scholarships to a college-bound boy and girl graduating from high school. Both of this year's recipients are from Oakland Mills High School.
Sean Wray, a member of the Columbia Diplomats, willattend the University of Maryland. Wray is a member of the under-17 1/2 boys Olympic Development Program team from Maryland, the Oakland Mills Class 3A state championship team, and was a first-team pick by the Howard County Sun for its 1990 all-county boys soccer team.
Jennifer Golding, a member of the Columbia Cruisers, will attend Virginia Tech.
Golding was a member of the Oakland Mills team that placed second in the Class 3A state championships, and was a second-team pick by the Howard County Sun for its 1990 all-county girls soccer team.