Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sports club gives young professionals a way to unwind

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Tiffany Albright takes a big cut as a teammate looks on during a Social Sports of Bethesda softball game July 22 at Meadowbrook Park in Chevy Chase. The club was founded in 2003 to provide a competitive but relaxed athletic environment for area professionals. Players often head out to club sponsor bars after the game to cool off, have a few drinks and enjoy each other’s company.
Softball players at Meadowbrook Park last week were eager to enjoy some time in the sun away from the office. They hit a few line drives, kept up the infield chatter, and worked up a good sweat.

But for members of the Social Sports of Bethesda club, it’s about more than just playing the game. Outings to local bars afterwards help build camaraderie and new social networks over cold beers. And a few players may even get what may be considered the ultimate payoff – finding a spouse.

‘‘We’ve had a couple of people marry out of the league. We’re not trying to play matchmaker...but it’s inevitable,” said Nick Jovanovic, one of the club’s co-founders.

Begun in 2003 by Jovanovic and Erik Anderson, who both grew up playing sports at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, SSB emphasizes the co-ed fun and teamwork in intramural sports while still being organized and structured.

The goal is not to help high school jocks relive their glory days, but bring people together over sports like flag football and volleyball as well as softball. With so many young professionals in the Bethesda area, the idea has blossomed.

What started out as a club with a handful of softball and football squads has grown into a league with about 1,000 participants, regular season and playoff schedules, and a sponsorship by Miller Lite. There are currently 60 flag football teams and 48 softball teams. Both leagues require players be at least 21 years old, although there is no maximum age.

Most of the playing venues are in Bethesda, as are the two sponsor bars, Caddies and Union Jack’s. The Montgomery County Recreation Department also runs similar adult recreation leagues in six sports, including flag football, softball, soccer and kickball.

Leaning on the bench waiting for his turn at bat last week, Marc Sandler, 24, said he didn’t know anybody when he signed up for SSB softball as a ‘‘free agent” and joined a team of complete strangers. The squad has become a cohesive social unit, and some players want to stick together to form their own team in other SSB sports.

‘‘Especially in the summer it’s nice to get out,” said Sandler, who is from Chevy Chase and works in the mortgage industry off the field. ‘‘Better than sitting around doing nothing.”

Earl Cabellon, a league organizer who works at the University of Maryland College Park recreation department, said the league makes sure to emphasize the co-ed nature of the club as well as the proper amateur spirit.

In softball, for example, at least every third batter must be female. In flag football, every third play must involve a female ball handler.

Teams are also ranked by sportsmanship, and whether teams play fair or foul can impact playoff standings and even determine championships. Generally, SSB sports seasons last about eight weeks, followed by a week of playoffs.

‘‘SSB has allowed me to make some friends here and get connected to the area,” said Cabellon, who is originally from Rhode Island.

The league has a Web site as well as its own MySpace page for league updates, schedules and other social events to keep SSB from becoming disorganized and ragged.

‘‘Instead of people just sitting on their couch right after work, or just going directly to a bar for happy hour, you’re introducing an element that provides a little different dynamic,” Jovanovic said.

Heading back to the bench after lining out, Sandler’s teammate Aimee Farley said she was very nervous when she joined the team because she didn’t know anybody.

‘‘There is a good balance,” said Farley, 29, a teacher in Sandy Spring. ‘‘Every game has been competitive. Everyone has been very supportive.”

Some of the teams show up two or three hours beforehand to warm up. Umpires and other officials receive training and are chalking the fields well before contests. But as football referee and softball player Dave Mroz notes, ‘‘It’s fun to go out after all the games.”

Finally getting his turn at bat last week, Sandler clubbed a pitch deep to right over the outfielder’s head. With no fence to clear, the ball kept rolling and Sandler kept scooting around the bases for an old-school home run. He crossed home plate well before the ball got back to the catcher.

Shortly after, discussion turned to the post-game ritual: should the team go to Caddies or Union Jack’s? There’s no mention of whether the team won or lost.