At many high schools, it is a given. They field boys and girls soccer teams every year, with little trouble.

It should be easy, particularly at schools with large enrollments. After all, the sport only requires 11 players on the field, so a squad of about 15 easily can compete for a season. And soccer is one of the most popular sports among U.S. youths.

However, in Prince George's County, the soccer bug that is spreading across the nation is hard to find. Again this fall, half of the county's 20 public high schools are unable to field girls soccer teams. And five of those are unable to field boys teams--even though girls are eligible to play on boys teams when a school does not have a girls team.

"When you have 1,500 students, there is no reason you can't field varsity and [junior varsity] boys and girls soccer teams," said Crossland Athletic Director Desi Brown, who is hopeful his school will be able to field a boys junior varsity team this fall. "I really believe at this level, no school in P.G. County should not have boys and girls soccer, JV and varsity. . . . I can't understand why, because [soccer] is so popular."

Out of Play

Coaches and educators had two primary explanations for the inability of county schools to field soccer teams. First, they said, not many area children are exposed to soccer when they are young. Also, many high school athletes have begun to specialize, sticking to one sport year-round instead of trying different things.

School officials also said they have a hard time finding coaches to begin soccer programs.

"I think it has to do with culture and the development of culture and developing a variety of interests before getting to high school," said one county educator, who asked not to be identified. "It is difficult to take young people who have not been exposed [to a sport] and then expose them [and think] because a program exists . . . they're going to play it. It's developed over time. It's like reading. You don't just come into ninth grade and learn how to read. You learn to read over time."

Largo Athletic Director Jacqueline Slay said she thought the Women's World Cup, held this summer in the United States, would draw high school girls to the sport.

"I just knew [the Women's World Cup] would get girls galore," said Slay, noting that games were played at Redskins Stadium, less than three miles from Largo High. "Not that I thought they would know soccer, but they would be willing to learn."

Despite all efforts, Largo was unable to field a girls soccer team for the third consecutive fall. The school has an enrollment of 2,800 students.

"It's very distressing," Slay said. "We had about five girls who expressed interest even after all the publicity and prodding and asking."

For some, such as Brown and Friendly Athletic Director Pat Harris-Paxson, whose school has no soccer teams, making the call to cancel the season is difficult, knowing that such a decision will be crushing to students who want to play. For Slay, it was easy.

"The girls kind of dropped out themselves," Slay said. "It wasn't the coach telling them they weren't going to have a team. It was the other way around."

Coach Works on Roster

Peter Maiorello knows the frustration of being unable to field a team. He taught math at Largo and struggled to get players for the soccer team before moving to Surrattsville prior to the last school year. He became the coach at Surrattsville, but was unable to get enough players for a team--the first time that Surrattsville failed to field a team in at least 25 years, according to Jim St. Ledger, the school's athletic director.

"I felt horrible," St. Ledger said. "I was stunned. I never thought that could happen. And yet, with some of the schools our size in Prince George's County, they haven't fielded one in a long time.

"But I can see [why], with the timing more than anything, [and] the new person we had hired [Maiorello] wasn't on staff that long. Soccer starts right there at the beginning. He tried to get people to come out, but they didn't know him. But having taught in the building now and also being [Surrattsville's] swimming coach, he had time to recruit."

With a year at Surrattsville under his belt, Maiorello found players to have a team this fall. Some are playing competitive soccer for the first time in their lives, he said. There are three girls on the team.

"I figure how hard should it be to find 15 people that want to play soccer?" Maiorello asked. "I don't think it should be that complicated. It took me since [May 1998] to get a team of about 18 players together, and I had to combine both boys and girls [teams] together."

Maiorello believes the emphasis placed on football and basketball puts less-publicized sports, including soccer, in the background.

"Soccer has never really gained full acceptance in this country as a viable sport," he said. "On [television] people see the football, basketball and baseball and the kind of money those guys make and then they look at soccer and think a couple guys might make a decent living at it, but it's not a big-money sport."

Said Eleanor Roosevelt girls soccer coach Diane Casey: "I think the problem is that you have a lot of coaches [in other sports] who are not making it a requirement, but are strongly insisting that you play the same sport all year-round. Basketball players are playing fall ball instead of playing soccer or volleyball or cross-country. You don't see coaches encouraging their kids to go out and play other sports."

At Crossland, Brown's inability to find a coach temporarily has left teacher Willie Sanders coaching the team. Sanders is better known for being the boys basketball coach at Coolidge High in Northwest Washington.

"It probably will come down to me coaching it," Brown said. "It's easier to not even have a team. Then you don't have to worry about bus transportation and coaches."

Schedules Challenge

The schools that can't field teams sometimes make life difficult on those that can. To be eligible for the state soccer tournament, a team must play a minimum of nine regular season games. But with some Prince George's schools canceling their soccer seasons at the last minute, meeting the minimum-game requirements can be challenging for the schools that have enough players.

"We're pulling our hair out because we're forced to change schedules and logistical things to make it happen," said Owen Johnson, the school system's supervisor of high school athletics.

Even though schools were required to commit to whether they would have a team by Sept. 3, there is no guarantee that schools barely fielding a team will complete the season. And teams at several county high schools have just enough players to compete right now.

"You are apprehensive because come time to play them, they might not even have a team to put on the field," said Eleanor Roosevelt boys soccer coach George Kallas, remembering that Crossland once folded its boys team midway through a season and that Largo failed to play its entire schedule last season. "For whatever reason, our soccer programs are not growing," Johnson said. "It's a concern. It's a major concern. . . . [But] I have concern for both boys and girls soccer, wrestling, baseball and softball, tennis, swimming and golf. All of those sports are not fielding full teams across the county. It's not only soccer. It's a lot of sports."

CAPTION: Surrattsville's Henry Hypes (6) and DuVal's Emeka Ibe focus on soccer, which hasn't been the focus of many county athletes. "Soccer has never really gained full acceptance in this country as a viable sport," Maiorello said.

CAPTION: Surrattsville soccer coach Peter Maiorello, who struggled to fill out a roster, instructs team before season opener against DuVal. "I figure how hard should it be to find 15 people that want to play soccer?" Maiorello asked.