Ward Odenwald remembers his first Hero's Lacrosse game. It was a warm summer night when the goalie dressed in a navy blue jersey trotted onto the field carrying a stick that had been sawed down six inches for the slight fifth-grader.
"My stick was too big for me, so my dad had to shorten it," said Odenwald, now a senior at Glenelg. "But I guess it didn't matter that much because the Red team we played scored 20 goals on me."
Odenwald laughs when he recalls those early days on the lacrosse field. These days he is preparing for his final season of high school and is being recruited by some top collegiate lacrosse teams, most notably Navy and Princeton.
"I didn't realize it at the time, but playing Hero's every summer was one of the best things I could have done to get better," Odenwald said. "It gave me the chance to play almost every day and get better."
In its 28th year, Hero's Lacrosse gives some 1,200 boys and girls ages 10 to 18 an environment where the emphasis is on improving individual skill, not winning. Each team plays seven games, and there are no playoffs. And it's common for younger players on one team to also compete for an older team in need of members.
"Ward's a Hero's rat because he'd always stick around and play in as many games as he could," said Warren Michael, the league's commissioner and also an assistant coach at Centennial. "When you're in sixth or seventh grade and you are playing against high school kids, you're going to get better."
Danny Incontrera is one such player. The ninth-grader at Mount Hebron got his first taste of varsity competition last week after finishing a game with his freshman and sophomore team. He made an appearance for a team of juniors and seniors coached by his older brother, Tony, a defenseman at five-time Division III national champion Salisbury.
Danny, a midfielder and the smallest player on the field that night, posted three goals and an assist to help the Navy team -- named for the color, not the college -- to a 13-5 victory over the Orange team.
"I think this gives me a lot of confidence because I proved to myself I can play against high school players," Danny said.
The league is loaded with talent. Glenelg senior Shea Conway was the first pick of the Hero's draft, which bodes well for him considering three of the past four selected first earned lacrosse scholarships to Division I colleges.
"I need to play as much as I can everyday to get better, and that means going to camps and playing Hero's," said Conway, who scored 31 goals this spring to help the Gladiators to the county title. "There's no substitute for game experience, and in Hero's you can sometimes play a couple of games a night."
Conway's Navy team is made up of players from five high schools, mirroring the composition of each of the Senior Division's 12 teams.
"It's fun to play with guys you go against during the high school season; it's not like we don't get along because winning isn't that important -- that's what high school season's for," said Tommy Incontrera, a junior at Mount Hebron and an attackman on the Navy team. "Besides, its never too early to scout who you're playing against next year."
Several county high school coaches roam the fields to see their current and future players. "Kids have a lot of choices of things they can do over the summer, but it's important that they find time to play lacrosse, whether its going to camp or playing in a league," Mount Hebron Coach Tom Minard said. "It's gotten to be that lacrosse has become a year-round sport."