Low-key sport posts net gains

Badminton: The fast-paced game isn't as high profile as other sports, but it's climbing in popularity in Baltimore County, the only county in the state to sanction it.

High Schools

October 29, 2002|By Tommy Ventre | Tommy Ventre,SUN STAFF

Pikesville badminton coach Marlene Honkofsky called the scene "hysterical."

One recent afternoon inside Pikesville High's gym, some football players decided they'd try their hand at badminton, challenging members of the school's team. After all, how much trouble could those skinny, little badminton players give the football hulks?

Plenty, as it turned out.

"They're decent athletes, but they couldn't come close to keeping up with my kids," Honkofsky said.

"And we've had soccer players go by, and they have good footwork and all this, and they get killed. I think when they do that, they start to respect it. They realize, `Hey, maybe this isn't such a wussy sport after all.' "

And so it is for the high school badminton crowd: Skilled athletes - and certainly not nerds - nevertheless constantly fighting for attention and respect.

Since its first season as a varsity sport in Baltimore County 28 years ago, badminton has often been buried behind higher-profile fall sports. But as the county prepares to hold team and individual championships this week, the sport is rising fast in popularity.

Nowhere in the county is the growth more evident than at Pikesville, home to six county championship teams since 1995 and a favorite to win again this year. Honkofsky said it's normal for her to see as many as 50 student try out for her squad each year, meaning she has to turn some away.

"There's a big draw here," Honkofsky said. "I have more boys come out than girls now. I had to cut 10 boys, and I kept 17. So when you have 27 boys go out for a team, that says something."

Badminton started as a girls-only sport in 1974, part of Baltimore County's effort to comply with Title IX legislation that mandated equal opportunities for female students. When the county added girls soccer in 1984, badminton became co-ed.

"After we made it co-ed, we saw a little dropoff in numbers," said Baltimore County athletic director Ron Belinko, whose county is the only public school system in the state to sanction badminton. "But now the sport is booming, and that's great to see."

When Honkofsky took over the Pikesville program in 1995, eight county schools had teams. Now, there are 19 (including a first-year program at Carver A&T), split into two divisions.

Belinko said the sport's recent rise has been largely student-driven, with more and more students seeking a low-key way to stay active while their other sports are not in season.

When it's played well, badminton is a fast-paced sport that requires reflexes and even quicker feet, and that's been attracting better athletes. The shuttlecock (birdie) can travel up to 200 mph, yet players must try to keep it within the confines of a roughly 42-by-19-foot court.

"The reflex and the agility and the reaction time - you have to be an athlete to really play it well," Honkofsky said.

More than half of Pikesville's roster is made up of athletes from other sports, including baseball, wrestling, tennis and lacrosse. Two Pikesville sophomores - Justin Stappler and Norman Miller - even gave up football to play, saying badminton was just more fun. The situation is no different at other county schools, debunking the commonly held view that badminton is for geeks, not athletes.

"The labeling used to bother me, but I don't care anymore," said Pikesville senior Jordan Manekin, a defending county doubles champion and the Panthers' captain. "Besides, the little joke is kids will make fun of it during the school day but after school they come play with us. They love it."

The sport still has a long way to go, though. Four of the county's schools don't field teams, and badminton's success varies widely at the 19 schools that do offer it. Dulaney, Franklin and Owings Mills join Pikesville as perennially strong, but the situation is vastly different elsewhere in the county.

Third-year Patapsco coach Melanie Nolet has slowly brought the Patriots closer to the county's upper tier, but she said the talent gap is still too wide.

"It's tough," Nolet said. "You want teams to kind of sprout up in schools, but it usually takes several years for schools to get to the point where they can compete with Pikesville. It's a double-edged sword - you want more teams to be involved, but you don't want blowouts."

First-year Randallstown coach Mike Mekalian, who carries 12 players and often has trouble fielding complete teams, said instituting badminton at a school is all about patience.

"It's something that has to be enjoyed by enough kids to get some momentum," Mekalian said. "It's a matter of communications, of other kids saying what a good time they've had."

Even at Pikesville, badminton players say they could enjoy better support from school officials and recognition from the media and public. But until those things come, the badminton crowd will continue to have its fun.

"I think we've all learned to just do it for ourselves," Manekin said. "We don't need the recognition like the football team and the Damond Malloys [Pikesville's All-Metro quarterback]. We don't need that. We all know individually that we're good and ... by the time we leave, we all know that we're going to have a great experience."

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