A sport for everyone

Recreation: Nicknamed "Sportstown USA," the county is one of the best areas in the nation for amateur athletics.

March 21, 2004

If you drive to the Howard County Department of Recreation and Park's headquarters on Oakland Mills Road in Guilford, you'll spot a sign proudly stuck into the earth near the entrance.

It declares the county to be Sportstown USA, meaning that in the eyes of Sports Illustrated magazine, it's Maryland's best community for amateur sports. The magazine set up competition for the designation in 2003 as part of its 50th anniversary.

The recreation department won the designation by applying, but its application helps demonstrate why outsiders would look at amateur athletics in this county and be impressed.

Gary J. Arthur, recreation and parks director, told a group gathered to accept the honor that Howard County is a place where an estimated 62,000 people -- from young kids to senior citizens -- take part annually in amateur sports.

And, Arthur said, there are many options. His department estimated that residents participate in 74 competitive endeavors, ranging from the traditional American team sports to the arcane subtleties of martial arts.

The recreation department has a hand in administering, promoting, starting and conducting many of those activities. But Arthur also said that Howard County is a hotbed of volunteerism when it comes to amateur athletics.

More than 30 groups, mostly all led by volunteers, offer competitive sports of some kind in the county. A few businesses offer opportunities for profit as well.

The competitive level can be high. Howard County teams have won national and regional titles in soccer, tennis, youth track, basketball and baseball. Several Columbia residents have made U.S. Olympic teams in soccer and gymnastics. A few Howard County natives have reached Major League Baseball and the NFL.

But as the recreation department stressed in its paperwork seeking the Sportstown USA designation, the emphasis is on participating, not just winning.

Consider the breadth of activity:

Soccer

You can learn or play the game year-round, starting at age 4. With more than 10,000 players in Howard County alone, soccer probably has the most participants of any local sport, although baseball's numbers remain high.

The Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County, with an estimated 6,500 players who range from tots to college students, is the biggest amateur sports organization in the county.

And this spring, the club will phase in a county first: its own field complex, Covenant Park. The association set aside money for a decade to purchase acres off Centennial Lane, opposite Centennial Park, for what will become one of Maryland's two premier sites for amateur soccer, the other being Montgomery County's SoccerPlex in Germantown.

With play on eight fields -- three covered by state-of-the-art synthetic turf -- Covenant Park is expected to be fully operational this fall. Two more fields can be built on the site.

The club also will open three more fields in a deal with Howard Community College that permits the club exclusive use when the college isn't using the fields in exchange for construction and maintenance.

The Thunder Soccer Club, based in western Howard County, is younger and smaller than SAC/HC, but also is experiencing a boom in players and competitive success. And other clubs also offer opportunities.

Women's and men's leagues, as well as mixed-gender squads are run by the county recreation department.

And if you can't get enough soccer outdoors, the privately owned SoccerDome, a three-field indoor facility, operates year-round in Jessup. It opened in 2002 and provides instruction, leagues and camps for all ages.

Baseball/softball

Combined, these two traditional American sports rival soccer in total players, although no one club dominates the scene.

The Howard County Youth Program in Ellicott City operates one of the oldest baseball and softball programs in the county and also has the best facilities -- the county-owned but HCYP-maintained and managed Kiwanis Wallas Park at U.S. 40 and Route 144 on Ellicott City's western edge.

Other baseball programs for youth players -- from youngsters learning in T-ball to those with college aspirations in travel-team play -- are also operated in Columbia, Savage, Elkridge and in the western part of the county, as well as by several travel clubs.

If you're older, the recreation department can get you into an over-60 baseball league. Teams for young adults also abound.

Most of youth softball these days is the fast-pitch variety. But as an adult, you can play either fast- or slow-pitch ball.

Adult softball leagues keep lighted fields in county-owned parks humming from spring until weather conditions deteriorate in late fall. Teams are available for players of all skill levels and ages, and some leagues mix male and female players.

Basketball

Youth basketball is another huge sport in terms of total players, although no one club dominates the scene. Active recreation-level and travel programs are found at HCYP in Columbia, Savage, Elkridge and in the western county.

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