Yes, `football is booming'

Enthusiasm: With more players, waiting lists and additional age-group teams, the sport `actually is growing' in the county.

Howard At Play

August 29, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

In some ways, listening to youth football leaders in Howard County talk about their organizations and the sport in general is like hearing a choir singing to true believers.

To illustrate:

"Everybody's up [in numbers]," said Michael Milani, a Department of Recreation and Parks sports supervisor instrumental in founding two new youth clubs in the past three years, helping rejuvenate two others and assisting in formation of a new league. "We have waiting lists, in fact."

Four of the county's six tackle football organizations, not counting one for boys who exceed typical club weight limitations, have between 200 and 250 players this fall. And two have topped the 300 mark.

"Football is really booming in Howard County," said Art Nance, a longtime leader with the now-Howard County Bulldogs, a youth organization that has evolved out of the county's oldest such group, with roots in Columbia.

"It's coming at the right time, too, with a 12th high school opening in the county next year, lights coming to all the high school stadiums - it's a perfect situation."

"Football actually is growing," said Tony Cofield, long affiliated with the Howard County Trojans ... whoops, make that the new Howard County Terps, a name change for this fall to reflect the renewed spirit and quality of play in the sport at the University of Maryland.

"For years, we've been up against other things, such as soccer, in terms of getting players, but I really think the community's getting more interested in football."

There are some indicators, other than a rise in youth players, that, counting all age groups, warrant all the enthusiasm.

First, the Columbia Ravens, a youth club born out of an embezzling scandal two years ago involving the then-Columbia Bulldogs, made an offseason impact by tripling, to 15, the number of age-group teams this fall.

You hear some grumbling - but no public eruptions - in other organizations about the Ravens having filled some of those new squads by siphoning players from the more established programs.

However, Melvin Powell, the Ravens' president, prefers to think of the expansion as providing more opportunities to play in an organization that provides "a good product" for players and their parents.

"Are we trying to create an organization that's competitive? Yes," Powell said. "But when you think that just three years ago, the county had only three organizations for kids and now it has six - we think there's still room for growth in football here."

At least one youth leader, Allen Fleming, who heads the Columbia Community Church Warriors and has long been involved with youth football locally, is philosophical about players shifting to other clubs, which occurs in every youth sport.

"You always lose some players and parents - mainly the parents - to other organizations," Fleming said. "But we have to look at that as a compliment, others looking for your players, acknowledging that they've been taught well. But we're still in great shape, numbers-wise, for what we want our program to do."

Whatever the effect of the Ravens' expansion, Milani and others familiar with the clubs concurred - no youth club is suffering from lack of players this fall.

The rec department, which handles registrations for four of the six youth organizations, was coping with a longer-than-expected waiting list that had topped 80 boys early last week.

"A lot of them will find spots as the season nears; some will wait until next year," Milani said, "And some of it, we just can't worry about with parents just waiting way past the deadline for signing up."

Enough have signed up, though, for the county's six youth organizations to warrant dividing the league in which they play, the 2-year-old Central Maryland Youth Football League, competitively this fall.

The American League will be used by most for their more experienced players; the National League will be for newer players.

Even NFL Flag Football, a league created by the rec department, is booming, with 110 youthful players signed up, many learning the sport through the noncontact version.

The two largest waiting lists for youth tackle football, Milani said, were in the westernmost and easternmost portions of the county.

The Elkridge Hurricanes, entering their second season, have added two age-group teams and are talking about expanding next year, said President Andy Bonavitacola.

"It's hard to believe that we just started and that now we have about 250 kids - and still have a waiting list," he said. "And the thing is, it's happened mostly by word-of-mouth."

Dan McCabe, the Western Howard County Warhawks president and one of its founders, said his club has grown by about 70 players this season, to 320, and still has a waiting list of more than 30.

"When we were starting the club up three years ago," said McCabe, whose organization will field 14 age-group teams this fall, "we wondered if we'd even get 60 players to turn out."

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