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The Athletic Connection

For Many, Sports and Recreation Form a Central Part of Community Life

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page VA03

You couldn't have asked for a more perfect day. Not a cloud in the deep blue sky. Warm -- but not too warm -- and trees blooming like crazy. The day defined spring.

It was April 9. Opening day for the Vienna Little League and Vienna Youth Soccer, but it could have been the Fairfax Little League or the Chantilly Youth Association or any of the dozens of other sports leagues around the county launching their spring seasons.

Fairfax Little League Yankees enjoy a moment with their coaches, including John Prosperi, center, and Craig Knoll, right, on opening day. Below, McLean Little League softball player Madeleine Giaquinto prepares to catch a ground ball in front of Lauren Sutherland during a game at the Little League Softball World Series in Portland, Ore., last year. (Photo Above Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post; Pool Photo Be)

On a patch of grass between a parking lot and three soccer fields behind Joyce Kilmer Middle School, three little girls were sending bubbles into the wind, watching them glide up and away and screeching with delight. Nearby, a woman sitting on a blanket yelled, "Come on, Hot Shots" to the girls wearing white jerseys on the field. Parents had brought blankets and folding chairs and coolers filled with snacks.

Liz Johnson stood watching the Hot Shots. Her daughter, Lauren, 10, was wearing number 14. Lauren's sister, Christine, 12, plays soccer, too. She had a game later in the day. Her father, Mark, was her driver. "Saturdays, it is pretty much soccer all day," said Liz Johnson.

Six teams -- four with girls and two with boys -- were playing on the three fields. As they ran up and down, new groups of kids and parents walked from the parking lot toward the fields for the next games. On it went for most of the day.

Every day, thousands of children spill onto the fields and courts and into the pools and gymnasiums of Fairfax County and the cities of Falls Church and Fairfax. Soccer, baseball, lacrosse, softball, swimming -- you name it, there's a league for it. And that's just for kids. For the grown-ups, there are tennis courts, bicycle paths, trails and some of the region's best -- and most crowded -- golf courses. More than 175,000 children and adults a year sign up for leagues that play their games at more than 1,000 fields, courts and other facilities.

Sports and recreation is a dominant pattern in the social fabric of Fairfax, especially as the county has swelled in population the last 25 years. For kids and parents, sports is a way to meet people who can become friends for life. It keeps kids out of trouble, many parents say, and builds character.

Liz Johnson's daughters, for example, get a chance to play a game they love, exercise outdoors and learn some lessons about teamwork that their mother promises will help them deal with the real world when they are older and in the workplace instead of on the soccer pitch.

"Team sports are especially important for girls," Johnson said. "It will help them when they get out into a business situation. You have to be able to work as a team to be successful, no matter how talented you are." Johnson said she pretty much lets her daughters learn the teamwork lessons themselves, except when there's a "light-bulb moment" that provides an opportunity for her to share her experience and reinforce the lesson.

Involvement in youth sports takes a huge family commitment, especially of time. In addition to a couple of games a week, there's practice. Some families organize their schedules with a spreadsheet to make sure each kid gets to the right field at the right time. It is as much a part of the daily routine as school, jobs and meals.

"We are not the spreadsheet sort of family," Johnson said, laughing, "but we need to get to that point." She works full time as a consultant. Her husband works full time, too, so it takes quite a bit of coordination to get the kids where they are going, particularly on weekdays. She said either she or her husband has to leave work early to take them to practice, but they also are active members of a carpool.

"Pretty much, my whole social life is my kids' activities," Johnson said. And this isn't even her busy season. Her son, Kevin, 13, plays youth football in the fall, a sport that requires more practices each week than soccer, baseball or basketball.

At the game, the Hot Shots scored their first goal of the season to take a 1-0 lead. Lauren, a midfielder, was in the thick of things most of the time. She is one of those players who always seem to be around the ball.

"She really loves playing," her mother said. "She probably is good enough to play on a travel team, but that means more time and more practices, and a lot more driving."

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