The Maid of Northwind clutched her lance tensely as she sat atop her jet-black steed, Ebony. She stared straight ahead at the dirt track with its three arches, each 30 yards apart. From each arch dangled what appeared from a distance to be a Cheerio-sized ring. She'd have to spear all three in nine seconds or less for the championship. She patted Ebony and waited for her command.

"Charge, fair lady!" the announcer called.

The Maid of Northwind, otherwise known as Vicki Allen from Carroll County, started down the path, reaching a gallop before capturing all three rings with the shiny tip of her lance. Her perfect ride sealed her victory--first place in the amateur class of the 133rd Calvert County Jousting Tournament at Christ Church near Port Republic on Saturday.

Jousting, Maryland's official state sport, doesn't come with corporate advertising, big-money prizes or thousands of spectators. The main reward of the sport that dates to the medieval era is the unrestrained emotion of its enthusiasts, evident as Allen burst into tears after her victory and grabbed a competitor in an embrace. Jousting tournaments are largely grass-roots and family-oriented events, often held to benefit area churches and community service groups, said one Maryland devotee.

The state's 100 or so regular riders insist they like it that way.

"This is the type of thing that has been done for the past 200 years in cornfields and little back lots," said Buck Schuyler, National Jousting Association president. "It would take something away if there were large jackpot prizes."

In the mid-1200s in Europe, jousting became a way to distinguish the better of two knights. In serious duels, the knights charged each other and fought to the death. In the sporting version, however, lance tips were dulled and scoring determined the winner. Maryland's state sport is a variation of the classic sport. It is called "ring jousting," and also is practiced in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Today, riders charge toward the rings, not one another. They have nine seconds to capture the three tiny rings with their lances for a total of nine points. The rings start out measuring 1 3/4 inches but are exchanged for smaller ones in order to eliminate riders in a tie. The tiniest ring used in competition is one-quarter inch, slightly smaller than a Lifesaver.

As far as rules go, that's about it. Women, men and children compete against one another in four skill levels. There is no uniform riding style--just medieval pageantry, knights, maids and the all-important relationship between horse and rider.

"We're crazy, but we love it," said Allen, a dental hygienist who discovered jousting by accident several years ago. Her 15-year-old daughter also competed Saturday. "There's not many sports where you let go of your reins, carry a seven-foot, sharp lance, wear stirrups as short as a jockey's and ride at a hand gallop. Like I said, we're crazy."

At a souvenir stand at Saturday's event, 7-year-old Adam Brown of Baltimore mulled the merits of several plastic lances on display. After selecting one that felt just right, he summed up the thrill of watching a joust.

"The pressure," he said matter-of-factly. "You don't know if they're going to get a ring or not."

Adam, whose parents have been coming to the Calvert County event since they moved to Maryland 11 years ago, announced that he'd like to take up jousting one day. His father, Ken Brown, looked incredulous.

"We'll just have to check with Mom on that," he told his son before guiding him back to the festivities.