This is a year of new beginnings for many in Howard County's amateur sports scene, which Sports Illustrated rated as Maryland's premier locale for such activities last year.
Maybe. Maybe not.
But competitors from outside the county like most of the facilities in Howard County. Travel around Howard evenings and weekends during warm weather and you'll see school and park fields brimming with activity, with teams ranging from tots to softball players in their 80s. During winter, you'll find activity in public school gyms most evenings and weekends.
The county's Department of Recreation and Parks estimates that more than 60,000 athletes of all ages, involved in as many as 70 sports, use county facilities during a typical year.
Such widespread interest in sports has put increasing pressure on the county school system, which owns most ball fields used by youth organizations and all gyms. Flagging maintenance of fields and crowding of gyms are increasingly hot topics for the County Council and school board members.
This year, though, for the first time in several years, new public facilities will come into use -- including a first for parks anywhere in Central Maryland. More are being planned, as well.
That "first" will be the opening of the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks' first synthetic turf "multipurpose" fields, with surfaces suitable for soccer, lacrosse and football.
Those lighted fields at Western Regional Park, at Route 32 and Carrs Mill Road in Glenwood, will address what leaders of youth sports groups in the area say is the problem of overused, crowded fields at local schools.
The synthetic turf is the relatively new, bladed type being used at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, home of the Ravens, as well as numerous college and other pro facilities.
Such turf has a number of advantages, proponents say, besides the obvious plus of not requiring mowing and seeding.
The primary competitive advantage is that, while rain and muddy conditions can keep normal fields closed for days, play can continue on the synthetic turf in light rain and begin almost as soon as a heavy rain stops. That's important, when you consider that a youth soccer program, for example, can book games from 8 a.m. to after dark.
Athletes of all ages also much prefer the bladed turf to older "carpets" that until recent years typified artificial turf. The new surface is considered safer and easier on knees and ankles. It permits near-normal, true bounces of whatever ball is in play. That's because the bladed surface has more "give," an effect of the blades being rooted in millions of tiny rubber pellets made from recycled tires.
Weather permitting, Recreation and Parks also will open the three baseball/softball diamonds at Western Regional with grass and dirt surfaces.
Western Regional Park has been the focal point of several years of public debate in that portion of the county, where organizations for youth sports -- baseball, softball, soccer and football -- have seen enrollments explode in the past five years as homebuilding continues at a furious pace.
Objections to, first, the park itself, and subsequently, lights for nighttime use provoked heated political debate pitting farmers against suburbanites occupying new subdivisions.
In Ellicott City, where Meadowbrook Park at Route 100 and U.S. 29 seems to have been under construction for ages, two more soccer-size playing fields and three baseball/softball fields are to open in time for fall ball.
Glenwood and Meadowbrook Park also will have new indoor facilities that are a first for the Department of Recreation and Parks: gyms that can be used for basketball and other indoor activities.
The agency's first gym is part of the Glenwood government center, on the eastern edge of Western Regional Park. A library branch is open in the Glenwood complex, with the gym and a senior citizens center coming next, scheduled to open next year.
That gym is a department prototype for another proposed for Meadowbrook Park. Initial plans called for an inline hockey pavilion at Meadowbrook, but that met community resistance. That evolved into a larger indoor facility capable of housing two full-size basketball courts, as well as a multipurpose section suitable for indoor soccer and lacrosse. If plans go as scheduled, the building could open in 2007.
Lights are being sought for baseball and softball diamonds in Rockburn Branch Park, off Montgomery Road, in Elkridge. Additionally, the rec department is seeking planning money for the fiscal year that begins July 1 for another community center -- which would include more gym space -- in North Laurel.