To the ranks of suburban soldiers battling urban sprawl, add 7-year-old Evan Bean, aka the Knight of Beantown. Evan is taking up the centuries-old sport of jousting and, in his own way, helping preserve the Washington region's agrarian heritage.
It might seem downright medieval to some, but as recently as the 1950s, jousting tournaments were the main pastime in rural counties throughout Maryland and Virginia. Now traditionalists are trying to revive the sport.
"I want him to remind people about the rural traditions that made America," said Evan's mother, Dottie, as she watched him practice for the 139th Calvert County Jousting Tournament, which will be held today in Port Republic. "This is a good way to connect with the history of what this region used to be."
As urban sprawl transforms the Washington region, such traditional sports as jousting and fox hunting, once everywhere in farming communities from the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge Mountains, are struggling to survive the upheaval.
The grounds of fox hunts in Fairfax County have morphed into subdivisions. Newcomers flood into Southern Maryland oblivious to the region's traditional sports. And then last year, a devastating blow: The Maryland General Assembly agreed to make lacrosse an official state sport, a title that jousting had alone occupied had since 1962.
"It was like they ripped away part of my heart, part of my childhood," said Marie Howanstine, 25, whose father is the rector of Christ Church, which hosts the Calvert tournament, one of the oldest such events in the nation.
The jousters are fighting to keep the tradition alive. Some take days off work to recruit children to the sport. The 4-H club in Calvert is encouraging students to joust as a way to learn about horses and the county's agriculture roots.
But the biggest vindication comes today, when ESPN's main news show will highlight the jousting tournament as part of a series to highlight one sport in each state.
"This is our opportunity to let everyone know why we love this sport so much," said Mona Banton, president of the Mount Solon, Va.-based National Jousting Association.
Lacrosse lovers are not pleased with ESPN's decision. "This is a huge mistake," said Harold "Chappy" Menninger, a former chairman of the NCAA lacrosse championships. "Do they really think anyone is going to watch jousting?"
The long-standing rivalry between jousting and lacrosse fans in Maryland has grown increasingly bitter. Lacrosse fans waged a decades-long campaign to win state honors.
"It's embarrassing. Everyone thinks jousting is just a joke," said John L. Stude Sr., 59, a hard-core lacrosse fan from suburban Baltimore who lobbied for the change. "I don't even consider it a sport."
Stude's efforts were always thwarted by a formidable opponent: Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who grew up attending jousting tournaments in Prince George's County that drew hundreds of people, including politicians, from across the state. "We didn't know what lacrosse was," he said.
But they knew jousting. Miller's great-great-grandfather, a farmer named William Page Bryan, won a national jousting tournament in Philadelphia in 1876. "Being a typical Southern Marylander, he gambled a little bit and drank a little bit and lost his train fare," he said. "So he rode the horse in the rain, and the horse, Union Jack was its name, got pneumonia and died."
By last year, Miller realized that after he left office there would be no one to protect jousting. So he reached a compromise: Jousting would remain the official state sport and lacrosse would be the state's team sport.
But many in the jousting community felt that they had been betrayed.
"Jousting is just a wonderful tradition, and I love it and cherish it," he said. "But times have changed. To the chagrin of many, Southern Maryland has become, first, very suburban, and now, to a limited extent, urbanized. People don't have the horses and the time."
Dennis J. Foster, executive director of the Virginia-based Masters of Foxhounds Association of America, said development is also the single biggest threat to traditional fox hunting in the region. "Suburbanization and sprawl have gotten so intense that some of the hunts have ceased completely," he said. "There's just no place to hunt."
On Thursday night on the grounds of Christ Church, about a dozen jousters -- all younger than 21 -- gathered to practice. The object is simple: Spear three rings, hanging from arches set up on an 80-yard course, with a lance while on horseback.
Accomplishing that is no easy feat. The rings range from 13/4 inches to a quarter of an inch across (about the size of a LifeSavers candy), and the rider must complete the course within nine seconds.
A modified version of the medieval battles in which two knights faced off to the death, jousting became known as the national sport of the South, and up until the early 1900s, competitions were often followed by elaborate and widely attended balls.
But in the past couple of decades, as newcomers flooded into once-rural outposts, the popularity of sports such as jousting has faded. The National Jousting Tournament had 123 riders as recently as 1996; last year, there were 73.
Sharon Hudson hopes to reverse that trend. This spring, she began the Calvert County Giddy-Up 4-H Horse and Pony Club. Twenty-one riders from the group -- including the Knight of Beantown -- will be in today's tournament.
Dottie Bean will be cheering from the side. Her family moved to St. Leonard three years ago after deciding that Prince George's was too developed. Now she wants to make sure that rural ways of life remain strong. "We need to hang on to our traditions," she said. "The world is going by a little too fast as it is."