In the chilly spring dusk, the women of the Baltimore Burn -- ranked ninth in the 34-team National Women's Football Association -- are pounding the bald spot on a middle school field in Linthicum.
Their coach stands on the sidelines, calling the plays and hollering encouragement.
"Don't y'all remember that 36-0 . . . whupping we took last year?" yells Adrian Mobley, who also serves as owner, general manager, assistant general manager and marketing director for the team. His day job is as a special-ed teacher in Prince George's County. "I want you to knock the [stuffing] out of her! I want you to kill something coming that way! Y'all got to get nasty!"
Quarterback Tara Watanathai, 28, crouches behind the center, looks left, then right and grunts, "Ready!" Her teammates answer in unison, "Ready!"
She yells, "Hit!, " takes the ball, fakes a handoff and throws it to a receiver.
The women run the play over and over, under the floodlights, until Mobley is happy with what he sees.
Back in the day (not that long ago, really; the league only began six years ago), the team's take-no-prisoners attitude and broad-shouldered play propelled the Burn to second place in the league's standings. Never mind that they had to hijack a field to play on and rent a motel room to serve as a locker room for them and their opponents. On the back of their jerseys that covered their heavy padding, they stenciled their nicknames: G-Money, Phenom, T-Vicious. They hit harder and faster than just about any other team. Their motivation was to kill, and not very softly.
Then their mojo started to fade.
Careers, pregnancies, life intruded. Some moved away, others left the game altogether. None of which is unusual in a sport where the players have other full-time jobs and responsibilities, and teams fight for recognition and funding. The Burn struggled in the standings, slipping from second to sixth to 10th.
And then the lowest blow. Three years ago, seven Burn players defected.
The D.C. Divas denied there was any kind of raiding, but the team was clearly rising -- ranking in the top three -- while the Burn was faltering.
Better-heeled and staffed with guys like Assistant General Manager Brian Mitchell, a former Redskins star, and GM Rich Daniel, the Redskins' former game videographer, the Divas work out at top-notch practice facilities such as Velocity Sports Performance in Alexandria and play their home games at the Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex near FedEx Field in Landover. Beer is sold at the games, while a team mother brings snacks and water in her minivan to Burn games. The Divas also taped a reality show pilot called the Gender Bowl that is being shopped around to various networks.
To prepare for their season, which begins tonight with a home game against the Burn, the top-ranked Divas went on a retreat with a facilitator on the banks of the Patuxent River, bonding at night around a campfire by sharing stories, talking about their feelings about being on the team, and eating s'mores.
"We do give an extra little speech, but it's not anything ritualistic," Divas Coach Ezra Cooper says of preparations for tonight's game.
Thursday night, at practice, Burn coach Mobley set fire to a Diva jersey. Just to ensure proper motivation.
"Baltimore players hate the name Diva," he says. "What kind of name is that for a football team?"
Raynette Savoy, 29, was once a member of the Burn, helping the team beat the Divas four times in her career with Baltimore. She left to join the Divas because she thought they were the better team, and because a lot of her buddies were leaving the Burn.
"There was sort of a mutiny against Mobley," says Savoy, who, at 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds, has a body like Beyonce and plays linebacker.
The rivalry tends to blur a bit off the field.
At a sprawling apartment complex where they live in Laurel, Burn defensive back Keeley Smith, 38, and Diva running back LaShawn Foust, 31, debate the teams' attributes.
"Get a good cohesive team, play, and get a win," Foust says as she leans forward in her black leather armchair, massaging her injured, French-manicured toe. "You lose as a team, not because those girls left."
"I'll just tell them to go for your ankle and your toe!" Smith retorts. "We play an aggressive game."
"When you play so aggressive, you're not using your techniques and you're not playing smart," Foust says loudly as she walks out of the room, heading to practice.
In this rivalry, Baltimore carries a chip on its shoulder the size of a steel mill and Washington does not even bother to notice.
But the truth is, the real battle is less about any one team and more about the game. All of the women of the league are fighting for recognition for their sport, a decent salary, for a big-name benefactor. They are hoping that little girls will grow up with opportunities to play organized football. They are hoping for good weather, for beer and hot dogs at their games.
"It's addictive," admits Foust. "I know I will need counseling when I leave. My team is like a family. Not being able to travel with them anymore. Not being able to grind with them on the field. I am trying to figure out now what my role will be when I stop playing. A cheerleader? An assistant coach? I have to figure it out."