Just watch and listen for an hour or so, and a thought crosses your mind: This doesn't seem like your typical youth sports program, this Hero's Lacrosse of Howard County you're sampling at Cedar Lane Park in Columbia on a hot Monday evening in July.
Not one obnoxious parent, even after goals were scored. Only one bellowing coach (a boys coach someone who's mastered coaching effectiveness needs to talk with) out of 10 teams you see competing on four fields.
At Cedar Lane-West, you chat up some girl players, and these 11-to-soon-to-be- 13-year-olds say they really like playing Hero's lacrosse because it is fun and they meet girls from other spring teams. No one, though, in a bright yellow T-shirt uniform seems quite sure about the team's record - two or three wins was consensus, except all agreed, they had lost once, which wasn't really important. And does your team have a name?
Sure, said both Megan O'Connor and Sarah Jezor. It's the French Fried Bumblebees.
At halftime of a preceding game, the green team's coach told her 13 players, "It's hot. We've got to get our midfielders some rest. Anyone want to play midfield in the second half?" A couple defenders or attackers volunteer, one with an asterisk: only if she didn't have to take the draw.
"We could play you on a wing, or we could show you how to [take the draw] - would that be OK?" the coach asked the unsure player. Moments later, the player is learning the craft of the draw, battling for the ball one-on-one against an opponent.
At Cedar Lane Park-East, boys about the same age were playing. Three of the four head coaches on two fields were conversational in tone; the fourth, well, maybe he missed "the memo" about Hero's ball, how for more than two decades, its emphasis has been on playing, on learning and broadening skills, on meeting other players and on having fun, not running flawless plays, not being in the perfect position every moment, not dominating an opponent.
"The idea," said Warren Michaels, boys lacrosse coach at Centennial High and president of Hero's Lacrosse of Howard County, "is to have competition, of course, but it's not cut-throat. We don't keep standings. We want kids to try positions they don't play during the spring club season. We deliberately mix players from all parts of the county, so you won't find Mount Hebron's girls all together, for instance. And after a game, you see players leave together and get snowballs."
Michaels has experienced the full development of Hero's lacrosse. He played on a team the first year the program blossomed in the county - back then it was only for high school players. Now it is for players of all ages through high school. This is the program's busiest season ever, with about 1,500 players registered, up from 1,320 last summer, enough to add two teams in each of five age groups.
That's about 900 boys and 600 girls, with the biggest growth among girls, about 320 additional this summer. About 50 late applicants had to be turned away for lack of playing fields.
Mark "Skip" Darden, 40, a lawyer who competed with Michaels during that first Hero's season in 1976 and also at Glenelg High before going on to play midfield at Hobart during four NCAA Division III championships, has two sons, Mark, 9, and Elijah, 7, in Hero's this summer.
"I remember it as always being hot and sticky, but it was something fun to do," Darden said. "One of the reasons I like Hero's, too, is that it allows kids who may play other sports in the spring, soccer or baseball, to try lacrosse."
Girls referee Kathey Payne, of Ellicott City was to work four games that evening at Cedar Lane-West.
"My two daughters, both of them grown now, played Hero's lacrosse," Payne said, "and I got into officiating after they left because I missed the games."