The Hero's Summer Lacrosse League has come a long way since the daysof the Dirt Balls.
The Dirt Balls, one of four teams of 16- to-21-year-old male players, comprised the fledgling Howard County recreational lacrosse league 14 years ago.
Since then, the Hero's league, besides introducing cleaner, innocuous team monikers like the Red team and the Green team, has become asummertime fixture in the county.
And the league shows no signs of shrinking or stagnating. This year, 34 teams of boys and girls and an all-time high of 820 players have packed the Hero's league.
Hero's offers a variety of payoffs during its six-week, six-game schedule in addition to the enjoyment that comes with victory. For example, opponents become teammates: After the league conducts its annual draft a few weeks before the season, many high school players find themselves on the same rosters with players from rival schools.
The games afford players the chance to work on skills without pressure. Although team records are kept, no league or state titles are at stake. Nochampionship plaques are handed out at season's end. Everyone is guaranteed at least one quarter of playing time in each game.
The league, which includes mostly local players but also some from neighboring Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties, is divided into three divisions -- A, B and Junior.
Divisions reflect the ages and abilities of the players.
The youngest players, the seventh-graders, are usually put in the junior division. Older, more experienced players typically end up in the "A" division, with the oldest entering their senior year of high school.
The season culminates with an All-Star tournament, which this year will take place Aug. 3 at St. Andrew's School in Bethesda.
Hero's will send boys andgirls teams from the A and junior divisions to compete against teamsfrom Pennsylvania, Northern Virginia, Montgomery County, Anne Arundel County and the Baltimore area.
But that's about as close as the Hero's league gets to promoting winners over losers.
"We're tryingto encourage team play and sportsmanship. We don't want people goingall-out for the win," says Warren Michael, who is in his fifth season as the Hero's director and is coming off his second state championship as Mount Hebron High School's boys coach. "We do enough of that during the spring."
Michael assembles the summer league in the spring, when he organizes the registration. Players pay $40 to join. The money buys such things as players' helmets and jerseys and coaches' shorts.
It also pays for officials, medics and the use of two fields each at Cedar Lane Park and Centennial Park. The fields are provided by the county's Department of Parks and Recreation for $20 a game.
Michael conducts the draft several weeks before the season begins in mid-June.
Teams practice twice before beginning play. He also lines up an average of two volunteer coaches per team. About 65 coaches volunteered this year. The youngest coaches, like Atholton High School junior Allison Valentino, coach in the girls junior division. Theolder coaches, some of whom are in their 40s, work with teams in theboys and girls A Division.
"You've got to try to win and play good lacrosse, but you don't want to jump on a kid (when he makes a mistake)," says Boyd Chastant, a 1990 Hebron graduate who plays at Cornell University and has returned to coach the Light Blue Team in the boys "B" division.
Chastant spent three summers playing in the Hero'sleague and is coaching for the second summer.
"I've got a wide range of talent to work with. I have kids who havebeen playing since they could get a stick in their hands, and there are ones who say 'Whatis this sport?' " adds Chastant, an All-County defenseman at Hebron."After playing high school ball for four years and playing in college, I'd forgotten what that was like. It's irritating at times, but it's refreshing to see the kids learn something."
Chastant has also gained added perspective from the sidelines.
"It certainly makes you respect your coach a little more," he says. "You tend to understand the coaches' dilemma. You have to teach certain things, but part ofthe draw is you give the kids a chance to experiment. The kids oughtto be able to pull off something a (high school) coach would never let them try."
Such a moment occurred Wednesday night in a boys A Division game between the White and Black teams.
The White team, one of the better squads in the division, was cruising with a 7-1 lead in the fourth quarter, when midfielder Jamey Arnsmeyer capped the 8-1victory with the kind of razzle-dazzle goal -- he flipped the ball in the net from 15 yards away with his back to the goal -- that would infuriate most high school coaches who preach fundamentals.
This shot, however, drew nothing but cheers from coaches and teammates alike.