When Howard Leek moved to Sterling from southern Virginia in 1994, he had never seen a youth soccer game. My, how his life has changed.

Yesterday found Leek, the father of Kelsey, 12, and Morgan 10, sitting before dawn in a temporary tent on the Loudoun campus of Northern Virginia Community College registering teams for the 22nd annual Sterling Youth Soccer Thanksgiving All-Star Tournament.

"Coaches were there at 6 a.m. trying to sign up, and I was, like, 'Hey, it is still dark. I can't even see the forms yet,' " Leek said a few hours later.

Yesterday was the start of the three-day tournament. About 210 teams and 2,700 athletes from throughout the region came to play on a day on which the sun was hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds, and people had no trouble seeing their breath.

This year's tournament has special meaning because the soccer season will be remembered by coaches and players as the one that went dark for most of October during the sniper reign of terror. Throughout the region, schools went into lockdown mode, and once the children got home there was no outdoor soccer practice, never mind games.

"It was the most stressful time for kids," said Kat Pinkston, director of this year's Sterling tournament. "And they didn't have soccer to help them relieve the stress. Coaches had to look for gyms for indoor practice. Some coaches even took the kids swimming, just to get them out and doing something as a group."

The motto for this year's tournament: "Game On."

"We picked that several months ago," said Pinkston, who is coaching her daughter Maria's team in the tournament. "And the motto is so fitting because we had the sniper. And as soon as that ended, it started to rain and never stopped. And now we have this," she said, holding out her gloved hand to the cold.

With the temperature hovering in the mid-30s and a brisk wind blowing, it felt more like Christmas than Thanksgiving yesterday. But that didn't numb the spirit of those who wrapped themselves in quilts to watch young people 8 to 19 play the game they love.

One thing this dark October did for parents and children alike was provide context to their lives. Routine activities were taken away from them. Soccer was taken away from them. Now that they have their lives back, they are not taking things for granted as they might have before.

"The reality is that a few weeks ago the kids couldn't play soccer," Leek said. "They couldn't go outside. They couldn't do the things they normally do. . . . You had sort of a helpless feeling. I'll tell you, you couldn't get a higher feeling of emotion than on the day that you could tell your kids that they could go back outside, that they could play soccer again."

Yesterday's first game got underway at 7:30 a.m., the last at 3:30 p.m. Pinkston's team finished its first match about 10:20, and the coach gathered the 8-year-olds around her.

"You guys were awesome," she told them. "You were really great. You played a really good game."

"Who won?" asked one girl.

"It was a tie," answered the coach.

"What was the score?" asked another girl.

"Nobody scored," said Pinkston. "It was zero-zero. You guys played a great game. Okay, we've got another game at 1:30, so I want you all to go and get warm and be back here by one o'clock. Okay?"

Parents bundled their girls in coats and looked for a warm spot.

Already, two other teams had taken the field, one of about a dozen in use on the NVCC campus. Games were also played at two other venues.

Michael O'Connell, 4, walked near the field with a red firetruck in one hand and a toy tank in the other, a fitting symbol of this moment in American history. His 10-year-old sister, Courtney, No. 5 in the yellow jersey, was out on the pitch playing. She got the ball and let it rip.

Score!

A moment later, Michael took off, truck and tank in tow. "Where you going, Mikey?" called his mother, Callie. "He found a patch of dirt to play in, but it's frozen."

Courtney's family had been on vacation in Grand Cayman. "We had to pay $500 to fly back a day early so she could play," her mother said. "She was very excited about making the all-star team."

O'Connell, who lives in South Riding, said this year's tournament had more significance because of recent events. "I think it just makes everyone appreciate family more. My father drove all the way from North Carolina and made dinner so that when we walked in the door Thanksgiving night, we had a great dinner waiting for us. I think we all have a lot to be thankful for."

Yesterday, in the chill air of Northern Virginia, on a dozen soccer fields muddy and half frozen, men, women and children came together to play a game and continue the process of reclaiming a part of their lives that was snatched away from them during 23 tense and scary days in October.

"Let's be realistic," Leek said. "We had an entire region -- not a city, but an entire region -- paralyzed. So it gave this thing special meaning that we could not only come out and once again watch our kids play soccer, but commune together. Because when you go back to where we were a month ago, this was not going to happen."

On the sidelines, Kat Pinkston, tournament director and coach, directs her team of 8-year-olds, the Sterling Avalanche, against a Fairfax County team.It's feeling a lot like Christmas, and Harry Liu huddles under a quilt with son Alan, 5, trying to keep warm while watching another son's game.Members of the Loudoun Youth Soccer Association all-star team

of 8-year-olds give a group cheer before their tournament game.