Tee-ball to pinball, county has sports

Recreation: Howard runs the gamut in offerings of athletic, and not so athletic, competition.

March 23, 2003|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Soccer. Baseball - from tee-ball to over-35s. Softball - slow- or fast-pitch, for girls, men, women, "fun" leagues, "travel" leagues, teams for male over-60s, leagues with men and women on the same team, even a social league with a goal to woo empty-nesters into playing.

Football - flag or tackle, for children or men. Basketball - indoors or outside, children, men, and this winter, for the first time in at least a couple decades, women. Lacrosse - boys, girls or men. Hockey. In-line hockey. Rugby.

If you or your children are interested in just about any team - or individual - sport you can name, from neophyte to expert in skill, Howard County is one sports-minded place - for all ages.

Age-group competition that is encouraging more grown-ups to play is one of the hottest trends in amateur athletics nationally, and it's reflected in Howard County. In addition to obvious leagues for children, thriving leagues are available in men's basketball, women's and men's soccer, men's lacrosse, volleyball and softball. Some offer competition during three or four seasons a year.

Tote up all the memberships sports groups claim, factor out some who play multiple sports, add in those who pursue individual sports, and you can "guess-timate" that something like 40,000 men, women, boys and girls play some sport within Howard County during a year.

That skill level can be quite high. Howard County has produced several national championships in youth and women's age-group soccer, many regional and sectional competitors in swimming, in Amateur Athletic Union track, and a national age-group champion last fall in men's team tennis.

"But," you say, "I'm not really into that team stuff. I never could hit a pitched ball, I'm too short to dunk, who knows what those sticks with webbed ends are for and, besides, you could get hurt in the rougher moments of any of them. I prefer individual sports."

OK, take the most basic sport of all, running. You can do it alone anywhere, of course. And in Howard County, you can readily find like-minded folks of any age and ability - for any distance, at any time (a few even train at night wearing headlamps), and any place (including on 80-plus miles of paved pathways in Columbia).

The Howard County Striders not only conduct 5- and 10-kilometer runs weekly, but they also can teach how to run safely while building stamina. Striders ranks include a coterie of experienced racers who live for marathons - and even ultra-marathons, which means 50 miles or more at a pop.

If you prefer running indoors, it'll have to be on a treadmill, but dozens upon dozens of them are arrayed in gyms.

Swimming? Indoor, outdoor, year-round, from 5-year-old "minnows" gasping to perfect freestyle strokes at the YMCA to gray-bearded "masters" honing fitness and racing turns in quest of age-group medals, it's here. (Although if you really, really need a 50-meter, Olympic-length pool, then you'll have to go out of county. But it should be said that Michael Phelps, the high school phenom and next American Olympic hope, trains about 30 minutes away.)

For kids, competitive options include travel swim teams that compete for all levels of YMCA honors, as well as for USA Swimming medals through the Columbia Aquatics Association. Columbia's summer pools are home for lively neighborhood leagues. Several outdoor pools elsewhere offer competitive youth teams in summer, as well.

Cycling? Road-racing or mountain-biking? One of your neighbors is two-time national off-road, or mountain-biking, champion for men over age 50.

Triathloners abound, and each April, the Columbia Triathlon helps kick off that swim-run-cycle sport's season east of the Mississippi, drawing competitors from as far away as the West Coast.

Duathlon (or as one of its better age-group competitors, who lives in Ellicott City, puts it, "triathlon for those who can't swim") has enough devotees at the national level to keep things interesting, as well.

How about tennis? Play year-round, if you're willing to front a membership to play indoors when the weather's lousy.

Howard County can provide not only entry-level instruction for kids as well as retirees, it has an array of team tennis squads for any age, gender or skill.

Golf? In-county options total nine courses with six owners. They range from a privately operated but public executive layout (Willow Springs) to the county-owned Timbers at Troy layout in Elkridge to pricier and more exclusive country clubs (Turf Valley Resort has three 18-hole courses, and two more are in Columbia) and one club (Cattail Creek) where golf is the main pursuit.

Also, driving less than an hour gains you access to lots more courses from southern Pennsylvania to Baltimore to the D.C. suburbs.

For kids, there's a First Tee program - a U.S. Golf Association initiative endorsed by Tiger Woods to encourage youngsters to take up the sport, especially those who wouldn't normally even think about playing.

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