The invasion of the softball players is at hand.
After nearly a year of anticipation, the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks will be host to the Amateur Softball Association's girls 18-and-under fast-pitch national softball tournament this week.
The five-day tournament, the largest ever in the county, will feature 70 teams -- nearly 1,200 players -- from 24 states.
Four teams from Maryland will compete, along with teams from as far away as Edmonds, Wash. The defending champion Gordon Panthers from LaPalma, oneof several California teams, will also compete.
Of the Maryland teams, three are from Anne Arundel County -- Wagner's, the Tangerine Machine and the Jade Garden Bandits. The Lewistown Tigers are from theFrederick area. The Tangerine Machine and Lewistown are the tournament host teams.
The double-elimination tournament begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday with opening ceremonies at Cedar Lane Park. First-round action begins 90 minutes later; games will continue for the next three days on seven fields at Cedar Lane and Centennial Park. The championship game is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday.
The tournament draw will take place Wednesday morning at the Columbia Inn, one of about a dozenhotels booked from Wednesday through the weekend, tournament director Mike Shaffer said.
Ticket prices vary. Adults will be charged $20 for a full tournament pass purchased at the door. Full passes purchased in advance cost $16. Children ages 6 to 12 will be charged $10 for a full pass purchased at the door, $6 if bought in advance. Tickets purchased for individual days cost $6 for everyone. Children ages 5and under will be admitted free.
Tickets will be sold in advance on Tuesday at the Columbia Inn and on Wednesday morning at the Columbia Inn and the Columbia Hilton.
The tournament is expected to attract 3,000 spectators.
"Things have gone smoothly up to this point," said Shaffer, who estimates he has spent about 1,000 hours preparing for the nationals since Maryland was awarded the tournament by the ASA last November.
"It's basically a matter of getting your priorities straight and getting the most important things done first," he added. "But you can't forget the small things, because they'll come back and bite you."
The earliest priority was securing Howard Countyas the host. That process began two years ago, when a five-person committee appointed by the Maryland ASA traveled from Maryland to Denver, where it joined a handful of other states in bidding to be host.
Last November, the committee found out its sales pitch had worked. Besides liking the facilities at Cedar Lane and Centennial Park and the hotel accommodations in the area, national ASA officials were impressed by Columbia's proximity to Washington and Baltimore -- and suchtourist attractions as Harborplace, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Smithsonian and the White House.
Field accommodations obviously are a key to running a 70-team tournament, and the county's Recreation and Parks Department will provide four fields at Cedar Lane and three at Centennial Park. In addition, about 20 tons of sand and five tons of drying agent will be available for necessary field repairs. The county also is supplying several hundred feet of special fencing to be used at each field.
About 40 employees from recreation and parks bureaus across the county will share two, eight-hour shifts through the weekend. Primarily, they will take care of field preparation and crowd-control duties. Another 15 to 20 employees will operate concession stands. Three trailers will house medical personnel and the tournament's 35 umpires.
"We have a lot of people adjusting workschedules so they can be here for the tournament," Regional Parks Supervisor Charles Fouke III said. "This is a total Howard County employee effort."