The Anne Arundel Youth Football Association has begun requiring all its volunteer coaches to wear identification badges and to take a class on handling threats or violence from parents or players. Security concerns were raised after a shooting last fall during a prep game at Annapolis High School.
The season for more than 4,000 players ages 6 to 15 begins this weekend with new rules on punting, a new playoff system for the youngest athletes and a more exciting location for at least half its championship games.
All volunteer coaches were required to take a new three-hour class to learn about handling different risky situations that could arise from aggressive parents or youths.
After completing that and being certified as coaches, they wear ID cards on the sidelines, color-coded to represent classes. The county already requires coaches in recreational leagues to undergo criminal background checks.
"It provides the referees with a chance to know for sure who should be on the sidelines," AAYFA President Rick Peacock said. "We're just trying to be productive. We're just trying to make sure we're doing everything we can to prevent unthinkable things from happening."
Peacock said the shooting of a teenage girl during the Oct. 28 Annapolis-Old Mill varsity game made him think about acting before anything could happen at an AAYFA game.
"It's just more a fan control [thing] and game control kind of mechanism," said AAYFA board member Ivan Quinines. "It's so we know exactly who belongs around the kids and who does not."
More likely to excite the young players is a switch in the site of the title games for the A Conference, made up of more skilled and experienced players, to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. Last year's title games were played at Arundel High School in Gambrills.
In the B Conference, which serves as more of a developmental program, championship games were initially expected to be played on Broadneck High's new turf field. But recent concerns about a possible scheduling conflict means the conference's title games will probably be played at Arundel. Last year, they were held at the higher-seeded teams' home fields. Peacock said details should be completed in the next week.
"Our goal this year is to try and provide that championship day atmosphere for both" conferences, Peacock said. "It's going to be great."
All teams play in divisions based on weight class, then are separated into the two conferences.
The B Conference has grown rapidly in the past few years, and working out the master schedule has gotten more difficult because of the increasing number of teams and the scarcity of fields.
Not all fields have lights so that games can be played at night. Some communities have more teams than playing fields. Some teams want to compete only at specific times or on specific days.
League officials use a computer program to work out all the kinks, but some teams still have to play others twice in a season.
The league has also made a slight rule change designed to help the smaller-size teams - 75 and 85 pounds - learn how to punt.
Punting is difficult, and youths can struggle with the snap or kick, with catching a long punt or with facing defenders coming at them.
In the past, these smaller teams would instead have run or passed on fourth down or struggled to get off any kind of kick.
This year, league officials adopted a rule that lets the offensive team snap and kick the ball while forbidding any defensive rush.
"If we can get them to execute a snap, catch it and get the punt off, it's strengthening their skills," Peacock said.
The smallest group, the 65-pounders, will continue to avoid punting. They "declare" a punt, and the ball is moved 20 yards, where the opposing team takes possession.
The final change will be the introduction of playoffs for the 65-pounders, who in the past had more of an informal postseason competition.
They will now still have a nine-game season, but scores, wins and losses won't be recorded for the first seven contests.
A small committee will then seed the teams for the final two games, which will lead to a playoff, as in the B Conference. That change has been recognized by the county Department of Recreation and Parks.