For the past week, young soccer players by the hundreds, with their parents in tow, have found their way to Northrop Fields at Covenant Park.
The parade each evening continues this week, as the Soccer Association of Columbia-Howard County exposes its full membership to the new 55-acre, $5 million complex.
Children can't wait to run on one of the three synthetic-turf soccer fields - a first outdoors in Central Maryland - at the eight-field complex off Centennial Lane, near Centennial Park.
They also want to experience kicking a ball that runs true on grass that's the right height for soccer, not rutted or un-mowed or bare like so many school-system fields they have used for decades.
Players of all ages wonder what it's like to play under the lights; four of the eight fields will accommodate play after dark.
Northrop Fields is a sponsorship name worth about $350,000 to the mostly volunteer club - which, with more than 6,000 players, is by far Howard County's largest youth sports organization.
The first competition at Covenant Park was on Memorial Day weekend at the club's annual Columbia Invitational Tournament. Only the club's best travel teams participated.
But now the objective is to have every player compete at least once this fall on the new fields, said Jim Carlan, the club's chief operating officer. Travel teams and teams with older, more experienced players will play there more frequently, he said, but even young children will be getting their chances.
The grand opening culminates with a ribbon-cutting at 6:30 p.m. Friday to be attended by club officials, politicians, community representatives and others. It will be followed by a game that opens the complex for full-time use.
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TOURNAMENT: This weekend, from morning into evening, you'll find 77 travel teams for ages 9 to 19, mostly from Central Maryland and Northern Virginia competing in SAC-HC's annual Classic Tournament for travel teams.
The event has suffered in recent years from competing tournaments, said director Louise Waxler. But she and club officials think that when visitors experience the club's new fields the competitive situation is likely to improve.
ALUMNI GAME: SAC-HC alumni - some who have played professionally, internationally and in college - have been invited to compete in friendly matches Saturday - women at 6 p.m., men at 8 p.m., under the lights. It's a way of getting the club's thousands of alumni involved with the facility.
COMPLEX'S IMPACT: Part of the selling point for getting zoning approval to build Northrop Fields was that SAC-HC would free up county park and school-system fields for other groups.
This fall, Carlan said, the club requested no Department of Recreation and Parks fields; its standard order had been five. But dozens of school fields have been reserved as usual for practices and many games, particularly for younger players. Carlan said the expectation is that some of those reservations will be canceled as SAC-HC gains experience with scheduling for the new complex.
More than 3,000 players are expected to use Northrop Fields on a typical weekend between April and June and again between September and November.
PARALLEL WORLD: SAC-HC also has four new, full-size soccer fields under construction at Howard Community College in a deal with the school. College teams get first crack, but SAC-HC teams then get exclusive usage because the club paid $300,000 to build the fields to its specifications, which includes irrigation.
Those fields are expected to open for play by early next month, further easing SAC-HC-related usage of fields maintained by the county's public school system.
CLUBHOUSE: Visitors to Northrop Fields at Covenant Park will find in its center SAC-HC's new, 6,600-square-foot clubhouse under construction. Club president David Procida said the group hopes to occupy it by November.
The building will include meeting space, offices, a coaches' lounge, a gift store for SAC-HC apparel, concession stands and restrooms, as well as room for supplies and equipment to maintain goals and fields.
The club is selling personalized bricks to members as a fund-raiser; the bricks will cover a patio on the building's main level.