Jill Rudy, president of the Washington Women's Lacrosse Association, leans against a stage in a small Bethesda gym. It's early on a Sunday morning and all around her women are stretching on the floor, searching canvas bags for sneakers or applying Ace bandages. Gradually the players break into groups and start passing balls around. Rudy talks about her three-year effort to develop a local lacrosse team, her words punctuated by an occasional "Watch it!" as a stray ball flies by.

"We try to have structured fun," she says of the fledgling association, which has 55 members. "Baltimore was a little tense. Very few of the players here would have a good time up there."

"Up there" refers to the Baltimore women's lacrosse association that Rudy and two other Washington members used to play for. Baltimore is an older, very organized team which boasts its fair share of United States squad players. Their intensity of play, coupled with the extra mileage to get to practice, plus what some feel is the cliquishness of the team, prompted Rudy and teammates Ginny McGee and Terry Huston to form their own team.

Washington's players, whose ages range from 18 to the early 30s, still come from all over, from as far south as Fredricksburg to just outside Baltimore. Their experience ranges from college varsity to none at all.

Practices are divided into club play -- open to anyone interested in scrimmaging -- and association play, for those who want to compete against other metropolitan teams. "The big factor is time and dedication," says Rudy. "The people who play association are the ones who want to spend a lot of time on lacrosse." Time is a factor this year especially as Washington's schedule consists of all away games. The dedication of the team members was tested at the annual Sanford lacrosse marathon, held in Delaware at the end of March. For two days, Washington competed in freezing weather against college and association teams from all over the East.

"Ladies, you are not backing up. You're going sideways." Player-coach Jean Stewart is putting the team through a body-checking drill, a defensive maneuver in which the defender runs backward ahead of her opponent, moving with her as she dodges, twists and fakes, all without body contact, to deny access to the goal. The women are paired off, arms interlocking, running back and forth across the gym, working to get the required twisting motion. As the drill progresses, slower couples start to collide with the faster ones.

A radio is blaring the top 40. Lacrosse is a rhythmic and flowing game and Stewart uses the radio to help the players feel that especially when running and cradling or performing what otherwise might become tedious drills. She also uses the radio to make practice more fun.

"If they're having a good time, it's really not work," says Stewart. "When they're considering next Sunday whether they're going to come play or not, in their own minds they're approaching it as play so they're going to go out there. It's like going back to the swing set when you're a little kid. You went there because it was fun and you didn't have to have any big purpose. Most of these people have jobs and work very hard all week long. They don't want to come out and work, they want to come out and have fun."

This attitude makes for camaraderie, an atmosphere some of the older teams seem to lose. "The women are wonderful," says Donna "Magic" Alexander, one of Washington's goalies. "They're skilled; they're social. I don't choke too much when I play with them because I enjoy playing with them." "They're all willing to help you," says Gail Fisher, a new member who previously played with the Long Island association. "They talk to you -- what you did, what you should've done. There's more of that here than on Long Island."

Stewart also sees this sharing among the players. "I've seen in practices where opponents will turn around an tell another opponent how to play them -- you should go here, don't let me go over on this side next time. A lot of players won't do that. They feel it's giving the enemy secrets."

The biggest attraction for the players, however, is the sport itself. Lacrosse originally was a North American Indian game. (The T-shirts Washington sells to raise funds read, "Lacrosse . . . the Indians invented it, women perfected it.") The game was played between neighboring tribes, often over many miles.

The women's version of lacrosse preserves some of this free-flowing style, unlike the men's version, which is governed by a wide variety of rules, restrictions, penalties and boundaries. In the women's game the idea is to keep the players in motion, going to goal. Some players are attracted by the finesse the game requires, as 24 players interweave at top speed throughout the field, without protective equipment.

"It's a free game, yet it's so precise," says Alexander. "I like the grace, the style, the way the women just extend themselves. It's not like 9field0 hockey where you're down in the mud all the time. In lacrosse you move in all planes. You're up, you're down, you go in 300 directions."

For others, it's the endurance of the game that attracts them. "It's kind of like, 'Hey, I'm an athlete'," says Stewart. "Hockey players and tennis players and softball and basketball players, they all run around and they all execute skills but a lacrosse player is somebody that is in constant motion for 25 minutes 9a half0, maybe more. There are no breaks. If you get a chance to take a rest you're probably letting down your teammates." WHERE AND WHEN TO SEE IT -- The U.S. Women's Lacrosse Association national tournament starts Saturday and continues through Monday. The round-robin is on four fields at the JFK lacrosse- hockey field (between the Polo Field and the Reflecting Pool). Saturday 8:15 to 4:15, with opening ceremony at 11. Sunday 8:30 to 4, Monday 8:30 to 11. There will be 22 teams from throughout the U.S. and Canada, and it's free.