Columbia Invitational soccer is `spread out,' worth seeing


Howard At Play


FIELDS PAST, present and future will be among the main topics of conversation, like it or not, at the 27th Columbia Invitational Soccer Tournament, which opens Saturday and runs through Memorial Day.

First, fields past: Remember a year ago, when not even spooky Stephen King could have imagined what was coming on Sept. 11, and the tournament's main fields for college-recruitment-age players were, as usual, at Fort Meade's Parade Grounds?

Remember night games, as usual, at Howard High on Saturday night?

More vividly, remember enough rain falling on the Saturday and Sunday of last Memorial Day weekend to make Noah feel welcome? Remember how the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County, knowing it had guests who had traveled by plane as well as by car or van, kept playing?

Remember how a day or two later, the Department of Education, youth lacrosse coaches and players, as well as some baseball folks, erupted loud and long about how soccer players had devastated many fields they also use? Remember the school folks saying they might even sock SAC/HC with a huge bill?

No bill was sent. Fact was, the school and Department of Recreation and Parks people never asked for a halt in play, which maybe saved SAC/HC some cash and face. But a lot of meetings resulted, which brings up fields present. ...

If the skies make like monsoon time again, officials for schools, SAC/HC and the Department of Recreation and Parks have a joint committee in place, they say, to curtail or rearrange play and at least cut field losses.

Also, Fort Meade is closed to the public for fear of terrorists. If you want to see those older, college recruiting-bait players next weekend - and if you like this sport, they really are worth watching - fields at Cedar Lane Park and Centennial High should be your destination.

Also go to Cedar Lane Park's two lighted fields for Saturday's night games this year - doubleheaders for boys and girls under-17 teams. Howard High's tired, old utility poles finally rotted, and this county's school leadership has no stomach, let alone money, for lighted high school stadiums anywhere.

"We're spread out this year," is the way SAC/HC's chief operating officer, Jim Carlan, describes this year's tournament.

"Fields are OK, although our hands are tied, of course," added Columbian Karen Dye, the tournament's day-to-day manager. But Dye also said that "rec and parks and the school system really have been working hard with us to make the tournament happen, and we really appreciate it."

Most fields chewed up last year have recovered and are being rested this time around, she said. SAC/HC will be adapting some largely unused, flat turf at Owen Brown and Harper's Choice middle schools for tournament use.

Fields future? You regular readers know the drill. SAC/HC is sweating out an appeal - likely to come to a head by early fall - of its otherwise approved plans for 10 fields, to be built and maintained especially for soccer, off Centennial Lane. And the soccer club's proposed 15-year deal to share added fields at Howard Community College in exchange for rebuilding them goes before the college's trustees Wednesday.

If those two proposals happen, by this time next year - and certainly within two years - SAC/HC will have 13 or 14 bona fide soccer pitches that not only local players but future visitors will enjoy immensely.

Now, the soccer itself:

This year's tournament is smaller, with 230 teams entered, down about 20 from last year, deliberately - because of field problems.

But Dye points to especial quality in the upper age groups. The under-19 girls national champion last year, the Bethesda Fury, will be here. So will the Baltimore Bays, the under-19 national boys runner-up last summer.

All of the upper age groups are loaded with state and region champions. One girls under-16 team, from St. Croix, Minn., is flying in, seeking high-level competition and, Dye said, building a national-title push for next year, if not this year.

Play starts Saturday morning at 17 county schools or parks and culminates on Memorial Day with title games for all nine age brackets. Dye said that if you want to assure yourself a program or find the usual result boards, they will be at a pavilion near Cedar Lane Park's two lighted fields, unofficial tournament headquarters.

Enjoy. And pray for rain to go away and fall another day - or two or three.

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