They were surrounded by children. Teeball games on two sides, soccer games on another with baseball practice behind them. Thank goodness for school night curfews that sent the tots packing to leave the football team alone under the lights.

The D.C. Divas readied for their April 28 opener versus the New England Intensity under a biting wind atop a patchy field. Spartan conditions at a former elementary school playground now home to the Marlboro Boys and Girls Club are considered plush by the women’s football league’s standards. The youth league even lends the Divas their blocking sleds.

Life hasn’t changed much for the 2006 national champions aside a new league and a few more fans. Players sit atop ice chests to tape their ankles. The helmets are being striped by one of the players. However, the balls are now red, white and blue like the old American Basketball Association basketballs that looks like a white blur under the strong arm of Allyson Hamlin, a former college softball pitcher.

"We neglect our friends and family. We risk injury," said running back Claudia Hogan, who sported five stitches from a leg injury in practice. "It takes a lot of personal time, but it’s addictive."

Enough to keep players on both sides of 40 years old to return. There’s something about no-frills atmospheres that bond teams tightly. After permitting one touchdown during the regular season en route to an 11-0 mark last season, the Divas want to see if they can do it again.

"It will probably take more dedication and execution," said defensive tackle Tessa Nelson. "When you go through a couple seasons without losing games, it becomes familiar to you. We don’t know what to expect from [this new league], but these teams are gunning for us."

Said Hogan: "There’s a certain amount of pride being world champs. I believe in new challenges. Being able to repeat is the challenge this year."

Like every coach worrying if his team can repeat, Ezra Cooper has used training camp to infuse amnesia. Better to forget the past thanbecome trapped by it.

"We had a little bit of that early in the season," Cooper said. "It was Aug. 5 [championship day] every day for two months, but they’re starting to get into the groove now."

Rick Snider has covered local sports since 1978. Contact him at