WHEN YOU get this deep into summer, it's usually the exceptional players in youth baseball and softball still competing; the rec players, by and large, are swimming or relaxing.
But the Howard County Youth Program has something notable building.
That's a summer setup in fast-pitch softball that serves what backers call the middle ground for youth players - those not quite ready for elite travel play but too good and too motivated for rec-level competition.
The idea is to keep them playing and learning, maybe by scheduling as many as 30 more games, through July in a rather low-key way that focuses as much on fun as it does on skill-building.
"We realized in 2001, not that long after we changed over to fast-pitch softball, that some players wanted to keep going after the spring season normally ends, in early June," said Joe Croteau, who oversees the HCYP Liberty teams.
He and club softball guru Sal Milio, The Sun's Howard County Coach of the Year this spring with Mount Hebron and a longtime HCYP leading light, got the Liberty organized.
"We started with one team in 2001," Croteau said, "and each year since, we've added one or two more."
There are now six teams, each with 15 to 18 players, which enables teams to compete while some players go on vacation, work part-time jobs and spend time with their families without changing a household's attention to softball, softball and more softball. The under-12, under-14, under-16 and under-18 HCYP teams compete in the Central Maryland League, which Croteau describes as more of a confederation than a formal sports league. No standings are kept, for instance, although teams - all of them - begin playoffs this week.
Comparable teams from surrounding counties and towns, such as Damascus, western Howard County, Elkridge, Sykesville, Westminster, Reisterstown and Catonsville also have teams in the league. Results? Croteau said that of 30 players on HCYP's under-16 and under-18 squads, 29 made either varsity or JV teams for their high schools.
And the Liberty - a name chosen by those original girls to distinguish their play from HCYP's more intense travel teams, which compete as Patriots - just produced its first college player.
Check out some youth baseball this week at Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge and witness not only competition among 11-year-olds, but also the power of volunteerism.
The Elkridge Youth Organization, which nearly fell apart two years ago for lack of adult leaders, has undergone such a nice rebirth that what you'll be watching is a state championship tournament.
EYO's new baseball leadership allied the club with the Cal Ripken Division of Babe Ruth Baseball, one of many national-level organizations that maintain rules and oversight of youth play. About 15 teams of 11-and-under baseball players will decide a state titlist in the double-elimination tournament, with advancement to a regional tournament in Bear, Del.
Play, said EYO baseball commissioner Tom Cain, starts Friday evening and continues all day Saturday at four Rockburn diamonds - two off Landing Road and two behind Rockburn Elementary School on Montgomery Road.
EYO also has an entry in this weekend's Ripken state event for 12-and-under players, with an eventual national champion to be decided at the Ripken family's new baseball complex in Aberdeen, off Interstate 95. Last week, the EYO under-10s made the Ripken state final in Mount Airy. And, EYO also got its first tournament experience last weekend, hosting the state Ripken rookie league competition.
Four youth swimmers from the Howard County YMCA's Manta Rays team have qualified for the Y's national long-course national championships July 27-30 at the University of Maryland, College Park.
They are homeschooled Chad Cressman, 17, in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle; Wilde Lake's Ginny Glover, 13, in the 200 backstroke; Howard High's Jennifer Leung, 16, in the 100 backstroke, and Reservoir's Charlotte Wells, 16, in the 200 freestyle and 400 individual medley. Long-course swimming means competing in an Olympic-size pool, with 50-meter lanes instead of the 25-yard lanes in all Howard County pools.
Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@balt sun.com.