AYRA softball keeps girls running bases

Scorecard: Program's small success comes as interest in the sport declines in the county.

Howard At Play

May 09, 2004|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ralph Albano stepped up to the plate again this spring to lead the three-team Atholton Youth Recreation Association softball program, even though his daughter decided she didn't want to play.

Albano, who also leads the Savage Boys and Girls Club soccer program, succeeded in reversing a decline in AYRA Softball participation - although maybe not by enough to extend the organization's life beyond this season. He recruited new players from two elementary schools.

"I don't know if it's going to continue to expand or stay the same or fade away; it could go any which way," said Albano, who lives in the Allview subdivision enveloped by Columbia. "It would be great if it could grow. My goal is to find someone who can at least make sure the program stays the same so the girls in it can play.

"Last year, I kind of coordinated it, because people had left," he added. "The organization, as long as I've been involved, has been run by one guy, and when he moved on, I took over. My plan is as soon as the season starts is to pass my job on as soon as possible."

The dilemma of AYRA Softball - with 96 players the smallest organization in youth team sports in Howard County - illustrates problems with small recreation programs and, in particular, with youth softball locally.

AYRA Softball and the separately run AYRA Baseball have existed for more than 20 years but current leaders know little about the histories of these volunteer organizations. AYRA teams draw from Atholton and Clemens Crossing elementary schools, and Oakland Mills and Hammond middle schools in the southern Columbia area.

Amid waning interest in softball virtually countywide, AYRA is struggling without a strong group of parents to organize fields, officials and equipment and recruit coaches.

Albano kept this spring's season alive by sending fliers to the elementary schools and organized two teams for girls 9 and 10 years old and one 11-12 team - one more team than AYRA had last year. The teams compete in the county Department of Recreation and Parks Softball Alliance, age-group leagues the agency put together for softball programs lacking enough teams to have games within their own organization.

The alliance also has leagues for the 7-8 and 13-14 age groups. Albano said that many of the AYRA girls who moved up in age also moved on, often to stronger softball programs. "We didn't try to put together a 7-8 team," he added. "We didn't have the manpower or ability to do more."

Albano has thought about merging his program with a larger one, but then the girls would be spread out among different teams.

"The girls want to play with their friends," he said. "That is the single reason we're here - they want to play with their friends."

Fulton's Todd McDonald, who played softball for 20 years in Frederick County, volunteered to coach the 11-12 team. But he knows firsthand the pressures on AYRA, as well as young female athletes these days.

McDonald said his daughter wanted to play field hockey this spring in addition to softball, but opted to defer hockey until fall to avoid having practice or games virtually every night.

Added Albano: "Girls are doing lots of different things now - there's lacrosse, there's soccer. We're fighting against soccer and Brownies and piano lessons." He also said the pull of multiple activities makes it harder for parents to volunteer with one program.

Mike Milani, sports supervisor for Howard County, said he thinks softball participation is down, although the decline that has been obvious in the past few years apparently has leveled off.

"There're a lot of new and energetic people," he said. "I'm not as worried as I was two years ago, when I was concerned softball might go away."

Milani, who works extensively with community youth sports groups, said the Softball Alliance was formed because of that decline in the sport's popularity.

"Softball is not as fast-moving as lacrosse and field hockey and some other sports," he said. As any outfielder knows, entire innings go by without seeing the ball, and players may not get up to bat for two or three innings.

"You get a team [that] doesn't have a good pitcher, and it's a long game," McDonald said. "Field hockey is nonstop. It's action all the time - players aren't standing."

But Albano and McDonald still hope the girls who want to play softball will have a chance to do so in their own communities.

AYRA charges $75 a player. The program pays for the use of a county field and umpires' fees.

"We're more of a social organization than a sports organization," Albano said.

"It's good for the girls," agreed McDonald. "It's a good learning experience. They meet friends they don't meet in school."

McDonald thinks the softball program could still grow, and he is hoping to persuade Albano to stick around.

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