Keeping Sabbath means no `states'

Track and field: Faith will sideline four Oakland Mills standouts, whose coach understands `you can't play with Jesus.'

May 06, 1999|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Go ahead, try to outrun the boys and girls track teams at Oakland Mills. Attempt to outpoint the boys, who are the defending Class 1A state champs. Challenge the girls, who finished second in last year's state meet.

Oakland Mills has the talent to beat a lot of teams any day of the week. Except on Saturdays, when four team members -- Danielle Stoddart, Aharon McKoy, and Paul and Reesa Phillips -- refrain from competing for religious reasons.

They are Seventh-Day Adventists, and their commitment to observing the Sabbath means that Oakland Mills coach Sam Singleton will lead his squads into the state finals on Saturday, May 29, at UMBC without four important cogs.

"The one thing I've learned is that you can't play with Jesus," Singleton said. "We know that we're not going to have them for states. We'll plan accordingly."

Although Paul Phillips is the No. 7-ranked Oakland Mills boys team's second-leading sprinter and McKoy is an All-Howard County shot-putter, Singleton said he is confident the squad can repeat as state champion.

But the loss of Stoddart, a two-time indoor All-Howard County pick and a sprinter and hurdler who competes in as many as six events, and Reesa Phillips, a freshman sprinter who ran the 100-meter dash in 13.2 seconds, could sink the No. 6 Scorpions girls' chances of improving on last year's finish.

"We really take a beating by missing them," Singleton said. "But there's nothing we can do about it."

Seventh-Day Adventists share many similarities with other Christian denominations. A significant difference, however, is Adventists' observance of the Sabbath, which emphasizes a day of rest to reflect on God's work.

From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, church members do not work. They don't watch television, go shopping, listen to the radio, or do anything secular, said Pastor Mark Stoddart, Danielle's father and leader of the Columbia Community Center of Seventh-Day Adventists.

`I like my religion'

For her part, Danielle said she will miss the camaraderie and the chance to win at the state meet.

"I want to compete, but I like my religion," said the lively junior who sometimes wears glitter on her eyelids at practice. "It's a part of me, and I'm not willing to compromise that for a track meet."

Her father, who played soccer and basketball as a child in his native England, said he knows how difficult it can be to ask teen-agers to sacrifice playing on Saturdays.

"You feel like you're letting your team down," he said. "But if a young person has given her heart to Jesus Christ truly, then [missing athletic events] is not that significant. We chose to recognize that God gave us our ability, rather than revel in our ability."

McKoy, who once played in baseball and ice hockey leagues in Canada but missed Saturday events, said that requirement used to baffle him.

"I always wanted to participate, but my parents would say `no,' " said the 6-foot-5, 300-pound senior, whose best toss in the shot put is 46 feet, 8 inches. "As a kid, I could never understand that."

McKoy and junior Paul Phillips said they had to quit the JV football team, because varsity games are played on Saturdays.

"I was a little frustrated by that, but my religion is more important to me," said Paul Phillips, who can run the 100 in 11.3 seconds. "Everything else stems from it."

The four Oakland Mills athletes are not alone in adhering to their faith. The University of Utah and Colorado State University, for example, eagerly pursued 7-footer Sam Randolph of Walla Walla, Wash. But he eventually chose tiny Columbia Union College, a Division II, Seventh-Day Adventist school in Takoma Park in Montgomery County.

University of Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams is trying to alter his team's schedule two years from now to accommodate high-scoring, junior recruit Tamir Goodman, an Orthodox Jew whose faith prevents him from playing on Saturdays.

State public-school regulations don't address the issue, and some small counties don't seem to worry about it.

But, said Ron Belinko, Baltimore County's athletics director and former Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association president, "It's getting widespread that big metropolitan school systems, like ours, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, don't schedule on the widely observed holidays."

Howard County schools, for example, do not schedule games on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, two Jewish holidays, said Don Disney, county athletics coordinator.

Disney, who said he has received about a dozen calls from parents of Orthodox Jews and Muslims over the past five years, said there is no "hard and fast" policy regarding athletics and religion.

"It's a sticky situation, but we try to be as flexible as we can," Disney said. "If we know ahead of time, we will do what we can."

The four Oakland Mills track athletes will be able to compete in the regional championships on May 19, a Wednesday, at Smithsburg High School.

But for the state finals, Singleton is hoping for some divine intervention.

"We're praying for rain," he said. "Hopefully, we can get some rain on Saturday, and then we'll be good to go on Monday."

Pub Date: 5/06/99

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