By Mike Chalmers, USA TODAY
After 40 intense minutes, C.R. Hooligan's and Shenanigans are tied 7-7, so the teams take the court for one more round.
The players - most of them in their 20s and 30s - are shouting, clapping, high-fiving, putting their game faces on. Head umpire Peter Boyer steps between them in the gym of Highlands Elementary School in Wilmington, Del. He lowers and calms his voice so the players pay attention to him.
"Remember," Boyer tells them, "it's only dodgeball."
That's right, dodgeball, the same game you played - and maybe dreaded - in elementary school. Along with kickball and Wiffle ball, it's making a comeback among adult leagues nationwide.
Players say these playground sports offer an easier, cheaper and more social athletic outlet than some traditional pastimes like softball.
"They're sports anybody can play," says Cyndi Clifton, 25, of Bear, Del., a Shenanigans player who is looking forward to kickball starting in a few weeks. "You need skill for softball."
Shifting demographics and the sour economy have taken a toll on softball leagues, but those who run kickball, dodgeball and Wiffle-ball leagues say they're booming.
"It's growing as fast as we can keep up with it," says Johnny LaHane, a founder of the World Adult Kickball Association, which began with just seven teams in 1998 and now has about 4,000 teams nationwide.
"They're all an excuse to get outside and then get together in a bar," LaHane says.
For five bucks, you can forget your woes
Bob Downing, director of the Delaware Sports League, says some players are paying the fees for friends who have lost their jobs. The games provide an escape from the stresses of adult life, a chance to be the gym-class hero again, he says.
"My job is to help you socialize," Downing says. "You already know you have one thing in common, and that's that you don't mind playing childish games.
"We're involved in our marriages and our mortgages and our work and the economy," Downing says. "But then for five bucks a week, I can go and forget about that for a few hours."
Downing started the Delaware Sports League three years ago after seeing how popular kickball leagues had become around the country. Much of that popularity began 12 years ago with a conversation between LaHane and several friends.
"One night out at the bar, someone brought up kickball and wondered why we didn't play it anymore," LaHane says.
There are now 400 WAKA leagues nationwide, some of which play on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
A smaller venture, the Kickball League of America, started with just four teams in Baltimore in 2001, says Brannan Villee, one of the founders. It now has more than 250 teams in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia.
"It just took off like wildfire," Villee says.
'Go out and act like a kid'
It's hard to know how many people are playing kickball, Wiffle ball or dodgeball because many leagues are small and independent.
National organizations say interest in rules, tournaments and leagues has grown from a few dozen people a decade ago to tens of thousands today.
"They're all over the place - in high schools, colleges, rec departments," says David Mullany, president of Wiffle Ball Inc. and grandson of the David Mullany, who invented the ball in 1952.
"I've got a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old, so I've got plenty of other things I should be doing," says Mark Myers, 40, who plays in a small Wiffle-ball league in his Des Moines suburb. "Taking one night to go out and act like a kid is about all I can do."
Many kickball leagues base their rules on softball, and some even use umpires certified by the Amateur Softball Association of America.
Softball remains a popular sport; about 3 million people play in ASA leagues nationwide, says ASA executive director Ron Radigonda.
Leagues for girls and seniors are growing, but adult leagues are taking a hit from the recession, especially in regions most affected by layoffs and company closings, he says.
Softball is still one of the most popular games on military bases, says Air Force senior airman Nick Vanhoorebeck, who was home on leave from South Korea and came to watch his brother play dodgeball at Highlands Elementary.
But dodgeball is big, too, he says. Vanhoorebeck plays in an Air Force dodgeball league.
"You expect to see this on a base because you've got to stay busy," he says with a chuckle. "But grown people doing it, that's just funny."
Rules of the game: Dodgeball
Played with rubber or foam balls, 6 to 8.5 inches. Five or six players start on each side of a gym or field, with four to six balls on a line between them. Players rush to the centerline, grab the balls and hurl them at opponents. Players who are hit are out. If they catch the ball, the thrower is out, and, in some leagues, the catcher's teammate comes back in the game. Last team standing wins the game; a match is composed of several games.
Rules of the game: Wiffle ball
Think baseball, but with a plastic bat and ball. The ball has eight oblong holes on one side, which limit its distance and make it move in strange ways. Can be played without base running using ghost runners.
Rules of the game: Kickball
Again, think baseball, but instead you kick a big rubber ball. And you can tag out a runner by hitting him or her with the ball. Usually played with eight to 11 fielders for five to seven innings.