`Co-rec' leagues score in Howard

Teams: Athletes find that mixed-gender sports foster keen competition -- and can enhance one's social life.

Howard At Play

October 10, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Ask around about males and females playing sports together, and you'll quickly hear all the cliches about how, past one's early teens, it just doesn't work. The guys are too rough and fast; the girls not as strong, intimidated, indecisive. Men take adversity head-on; women talk about it.

Don't even whisper that to hundreds of men and women playing "co-rec" soccer in Howard County. In just three years, the number of teams of men and women playing on the same squads has about doubled - to 49 this fall.

And don't say it to players on 50 adult softball teams in county parks and on a few public school diamonds from spring to late fall, or to players on 26 co-ed teams competing most months at Volleyball House in Elkridge.

In short, co-rec play - if co-ed is short for "co-educational," then co-rec can mean "co-recreational," said Howard County Department of Recreation and Park spokesman Janell Coffman - is a timely topic.

"It's one of the hottest things going, co-rec soccer here in Howard County," said Columbia's Jason Armstead, who manages three teams and conducts a couple of tournaments each year.

Until last fall, so popular was co-rec soccer locally that the rec department had a waiting list of people wanting to play, said Nicola Morgal, a sports supervisor who oversees enough teams that they are divided into three divisions, with Division 1 being the most competitive.

Armstead, 41, claims credit for broaching the idea of forming co-rec leagues in the county about 15 years ago, when he moved here from Montgomery County, where he first played in mixed games.

Armstead said he now plays in about 170 games a year, indoors and outdoors. His wife and the mother of their three children, the former Ethel Estinto, a former University of Maryland player who said she graduated "the year before they started offering scholarships and got a good coach," is still an active player, as well.

The appeal, agree players and league officials, boils down to a blend of sport and sociability.

"Co-ed soccer is maybe just a notch lower in competitiveness than the men's league I play in," said Jamie Mattern, 42, who has been a goalkeeper on Armstead's teams for 24 years. "But I've stayed with it this long because I love the sport, the level of play is very good, and co-ed doesn't have the nonsense you see in men's leagues, the fouling, the arguing - that stuff. The sportsmanship is just better, so bottom line: It's more fun."

Adds Mike Kane, who lives in Baltimore but competes in Howard County leagues, having started in co-rec ball when he lived in Columbia: "Men's play is so much more intensive; there's too much stress."

Co-rec soccer, Howard County-style, is played with slightly modified international rules - unlimited substitution is permitted on restarts, but each team must have a minimum of five women on the field at a time. Games consist of two 40-minute halves. Rules on tackling and personal fouls are the same used around the world.

A game Tuesday between two Division 1-leading co-rec rivals - it ended in a 2-2 draw - included slide tackles by both men and women, with the usual shoulder bumps and elbows and occasional shirt tugging while battling for the ball. The single referee had to issue just one warning about excessive roughness all evening - after a slide tackle by one man on another.

Together, the teams included former college players from schools as diverse as Maryland, Virginia, Towson, Loyola, Goucher, Villa Julie and the Community College of Baltimore County, Essex. Two women on Armstead's team got off two of the evening's best shots, and a deft pass out of midfield traffic by Ethel Armstead set up the tying goal.

"In co-rec, the guys on opposing teams tend to offset one another," said Morgal, a native of England who now plays touch football with her husband in Baltimore - on a co-ed team in a league with 66 such teams. "The girls tend to make the difference."

Co-rec ball includes an undeniable social dimension, too. It is not unusual for players on some competing teams to meet at a nearby bar or restaurant after a match. And that helps foster relationships.

"There are a lot of people who meet people they're dating playing soccer," said Sasha Warren, a Loch Raven High and Villa Julie women's player on Armstead's team engaged to teammate Matt McNeeley, who played at Howard High and Towson University.

"It's a great way to find friendships," said Emily Fleming Howe, 30, a track athlete at Oakland Mills High and McDaniel College who sought out a co-rec team after college even though she'd never played soccer.

She met her husband-to-be in July 2001, when he filled in on her co-rec team. In December 2002, he popped the question with pure soccer panache.

"He invited me to Sunday brunch," said the Mount Airy Elementary School fourth-grade teacher. "But first, he took me to Centennial Park, Field No. 6 - that's where our teams had played one another the first time. He took me onto the field and handed me a soccer ball."

Said Tim Rowe, 42, a credit manager, "I drew two arrows on it with a Sharpie and wrote, `Em, kick this way for yes, this way for no.' I put some obligatory red hearts on it, too."

Last December, they married.

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