On the court, recreation gets to be hard work

AT PLAY

Youth programs are growing more intense, with teams competing in multiple leagues and kids spending more time practicing

March 01, 2006|By JEFF SEIDEL | JEFF SEIDEL,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Basketball keeps Rudy Brown busy nearly every night. The Severn resident is the treasurer/assistant basketball commissioner of the Harundale Youth Sports League and also spends about five nights a week coaching and teaching the sport.

But keeping coaches and players busier with basketball has become the norm rather than the exception these days.

Children used to sign up for teams that would play in one league. But now teams often compete in several leagues.

"If you want your child to excel in basketball, they have to play more against top-level competition," Brown said. "When you play one game on a Saturday and practice once or twice a week, the skill level just doesn't improve."

The world of recreational sports has changed a lot in the past decade. Since the popularity of sports has grown on the collegiate and professional levels, more children watch them on television - and want to play more often.

This might be most evident in basketball. In years past, children often played in regular in-house leagues, with all-star or select teams getting picked and then competing at season's end.

But in-house teams now are regularly competing in more than one league.

Select teams also come together at the start of the season and play in different leagues - where they work on improving skills and don't worry too much about wins and losses.

"The gist of it is, here we are. We've been going since November and have got everyone still on the roster," Brown said.

Brown coaches the Harundale Heat, a team of 10- and 11-year- old boys who play in two leagues.

They compete in a Saturday league run by Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks, and one on Sundays that Harundale runs by itself.

The age groups that include 8- to 13-year-olds usually have teams playing in multiple leagues. There are also older age groups of high school players.

Other factors caused coaches to look for competition in more than one place. Recreation (or in-house) leagues had some rules and policies that diluted the game in some form.

The Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks league, for example, usually had a rule that said teams couldn't use the full-court press in games.

But other leagues often allowed it, as coaches felt the restriction cramped their defensive strategies. That rule also made comebacks by trailing teams much harder because full-court presses often force turnovers and turn games around.

Some coaches pushed to change this rule, and the rec league made the adjustment this season.

Brown and other Anne Arundel coaches have heard the criticisms that letting children play in multiple leagues is essentially a matter of parents trying to get their kids college scholarships. Many coaches scoff at that idea.

"We're keeping them off the street, and we're watching their grades," Brown said. "We're in constant contact with their parents. I believe the kids are having fun, and these kids truly enjoy the game of basketball."

In fact, those in Brown's program who play on the select, or travel, teams also are required to compete in the in-house program. They play up to four times a week, plus one practice.

The Annapolitan Jaguars and Severna Park Green Hornets have similar programs.

Ted Watson coaches a 12-13 team for the Jaguars that plays in the Anne Arundel, Harundale and Stanton Community Center leagues.

Watson coaches a group of children that came together when they were about 9 years old, and they've been under his guidance for three years now.

"I'm preparing them for the long road," Watson said. "[They'll have ] competition against bigger, stronger kids. Once they get to that age, it shouldn't be a problem. They'll be used to it."

The Jaguars also have a tough academic policy.

The Jaguars' Londell Owens developed a program about five years ago that requires players to pay attention to their schoolwork. If they get don't good grades, they don't play ball.

Colin Callahan is the basketball commissioner for the Green Hornets and coaches a team in both the 10-11 and 12-13 age groups. Both teams play in the Anne Arundel and Harundale leagues and want to keep getting on the court.

"Court time is so difficult to come by," Callahan said. "Even for practice, they get an extra hour on the court." And Brown said that, for every program, just playing more basketball is what everyone wants.

"I don't believe [they're] pushing it too far," Brown said. "These kids want to do it, and they're learning."

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