Playing under the Friday night lights

Lighted stadiums at Howard schools add meaning for fans, players

October 03, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Doug Hostetler took it all in -- the roaring crowd, the crisp Friday night air, his quarterback son's two second-half touchdown runs and the vibrating bleachers at River Hill High School filled with alumni, mothers and fathers, students and community residents.

This is what Friday night football is all about, and it's coming to Howard County in a big way.

"It's the smell, the dew in the grass. It's the anticipation of a Friday night game," Hostetler said, recalling his high school playing days in Somerset County, Pa. "It's the noise of the crowd warming up. When you're 14, 15, 16, 17, or 18, it's an atmosphere you never forget. It's a community. There was nothing else planned except Friday night football."

River Hill's inaugural night game helped mark a milestone for Howard County, which until Friday had only one high school with stadium lights. By the end of the month, all 11 high schools will have lighted stadiums and will be scheduling night games.

Some 3,000 fans attended River Hill's game against Wilde Lake. Hundreds of others arrived Friday night for a football game under the lights at Atholton and a soccer game at Oakland Mills.

"Night games -- there is always something magical and special in the air," said Charlie Gardenhour, president of the Atholton High School booster club. "Everyone seems to be playing a little bit harder and colors seem brighter." Gardenhour grew up in Prince George's County, where sports teams played at night.For more than 40 years, Howard High School was the only one in the county with stadium lights, which were installed in 1962.

When rival schools played away games at Howard High, the school system's athletic coordinator Don Disney heard about it: "They would go to Howard for away games and see the experiences and say, `Why can't it happen here?'"

Previous plans to install lights at other schools were rejected partly because of the perceived division between the "have" and "have-not" schools, meaning wealthier schools could garner enough donations to pay for the lights while the poorer schools could not.

So two years ago, an advisory committee to the school system's athletic department developed a fund-raising plan that would solicit private donations and be equitably based. The concept of "all for one, one for all" meant that no school could turn on its lights until all the money was raised for the project.

The proposal received the school board's approval last year, and fund-raising efforts began in January. Last week, the Turn on the Lights campaign's finance committee, led by Hostetler, announced that it had surpassed its goal and raised $1.1 million through corporate and private donations and efforts by the county's booster clubs.

For many fans, Friday night football was overdue in Howard County.

At Atholton, crowds streamed into the stadium before the game and sat on the bleachers watching the team warm up. Nearby, the school's booster club was selling T-shirts that read, "Where were you when the lights went on?" commemorating the school's first night game. On the back, the shirt screamed, "I was there!"

Art Nance, head coach for Atholton's junior varsity football team, knows about the thrill surrounding a Friday night game. He played football under the lights growing up in Pittsburgh.

"You're in the spotlight," Nance said. "You may have the same type of audience, but being under the spotlight creates a different atmosphere."

The crowd at River Hill was at least triple the normal attendance compared to Saturday afternoon games, said Alan Beier, a science teacher who worked an entrance. Lines snaked outside two entrances an hour before the game, and fans continued to pour in throughout the two-hour event.

"We're not really competing with anything," he said. "This is it. You come home from school or work, and you come back for the game."

As the night ended, Hostetler reveled in the moment as River Hill beat Wilde Lake, 21-7, only its second win in nine meetings. He watched students sitting on the stadium's hillside and along the track rush the field after the game.

"It's the way it should be," he said.

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