Program helps thousands of young athletes excel


August 02, 1999|By Sally Voris | Sally Voris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MANY ASSOCIATE the Howard County Youth Program with the ball fields tucked into the Kiwanis Wallas Park in Ellicott City. Little League was played on the fields in 1954. The program now involves more than 7,000 families in four sports at sites around the county.

The programs provide a variety of levels of play for boys and girls ages 6 to 18. All children may play regardless of the family's ability to pay, says Mary Jane Rudnicki, HCYP's volleyball commissioner.

She is one of four commissioners, all Ellicott City residents, who each oversee a sport. Jeff Loveless supervises the basketball program, and Tom Humphries and Pat Farrell are serving as acting commissioners of the softball and baseball programs, respectively. Howard Carolon serves as the president of the nonprofit board that manages the sports programs.

The schedule is planned so the sports don't overlap. Coaches focus on instruction in the early years. Travel teams offer more competitive play starting at age 8. And players and parents are being drawn to more advanced competition.

Rudnicki began volunteering 15 years ago when her son, Jeff, now 20, began playing baseball. She helped out with volleyball registration several years ago and realized that volleyball might be a perfect sport for her daughter, Jill, now 16.

HCYP offers 10 weeks of volleyball at the Volleyball House on Gateway Drive in Columbia in early fall. Rudnicki admires how her daughter and her friends try new sports. The girls, she says, are not intimidated by boys when they play against them at parties and informal settings.

Rudnicki, who attended Catholic schools as a child, never played competitive sports and never competed against boys.

Her daughter, she says, often sleeps late and complains about early-morning activities on the weekends -- except for her sports. Jill sets her alarm clock and is ready and focused for sports, even for early-morning departures.

Rudnicki took a team to a volleyball tournament in Orlando, Fla., this year. The girls loved it, she says. They are focused on health and sports, and Rudnicki is delighted. She marvels at the change in attitude about sports and competition from her generation to her daughter's.

She is taking registration for volleyball. Call 410-465-9312.

The Columbia Volleyball Club starts after the HCYP season is over. It is more competitive, she says, and its season runs from Thanksgiving to Memorial Day. "I told myself that I would never give up Memorial Day to sit in a gym and watch volleyball," she says, "but at a certain point, my friends said, you will just get hooked."

Ellicott City resident Phil Gugliotti got hooked. He had played competitive sports when he was young. He began coaching for the HCYP at the recreational level four years ago when his daughter, Allie, was 9.

He coached the travel team for the HCYP basketball team last year. His daughter, he felt, was ready for more rigorous competition. He approached Bob Freund, the basketball travel team commissioner, about organizing a team to play at the Amateur Athletic Union level.

The AAU is a worldwide governing body that encourages competitive sports. It serves as the overall body of all Olympic sports, Gugliotti says. Freund agreed to his request, and Gugliotti registered the HCYP Cougars for AAU play.

He recruited Ellicott City resident Tom Hopper to coach with him. The two coaches selected 10 players for the team, including their daughters, Allie Gugliotti and Noelle Hopper, both 13. Others players came from Glenwood, Laurel, Columbia and Woodbine.

The team held 90-minute practices three times a week starting in mid-March. Over the next 14 weeks, they traveled to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia, participating in 10 tournaments and playing 42 games.

The highlight of the season came, Gugliotti says, when the Cougars swept four games in the Mount Vernon June Jamboree to end the season. In the third game, the Cougars were matched against a team of 14-year-old girls from Harrisburg, Pa.

With just over a minute to play, the opponents led by four points. The Cougars forced several turnovers and within 30 seconds held a one-point lead. They won the game.

The team was euphoric, Gugliotti says. It was that feeling of euphoria "which comes from playing in a highly competitive, team-oriented activity" that he most wanted to give to his players, he says. In those two minutes, he says, they were absolutely in the flow of the game. He hopes his daughter will continue playing sports throughout her life.

Next year though, he is looking for a different role. He hopes the team will recruit a neutral, experienced coach. It was hard, he said, to coach his child at such a competitive level. He may coach again at the recreational league for his 8-year-old son, Michael, he says.

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