St. Agnes girls school in Alexandria is not easily found. To get there from downtown Washington, one must turn off U.S. Rte. 1 onto East Braddock Road, travel a few miles and turn again onto a series of small back streets, each seemingly leading nowhere.
The school comes into view unexpectedly, resting within a pocket of tall, spacious trees. The first noticeable feature, after the short asphalt driveway, is a vast grassy field lined on one side by a small hill and on the other by the tiny school itself. It is on this field that the school plays its lacrosse games.
In the metropolitan area, St. Agnes is both a prototype and a symbol for the sport; it has established itself as one of Washington's traditional lacrosse powers, but it also serves as an indication of the relative obscurity the girls game has endured.
Although area coaches say girls lacrosse is beginning to get the recognition it deserves as a spectator sport, they know there is much progress to be made. Only 11 private schools in the immediate area region list girls lacrosse as a varsity sport and only St. Agnes, National Cathedral School and Sidwell Friends have established powerful programs year in and out.
"We don't have the exposure of the Baltimore schools, but the level of competition of our top teams is comparable to their top teams," said National Cathedral Coach Sue Merritt, who came out of Baltimore to play at the University of Maryland 11 years ago.
"It's just started to get that way, but the progress is obvious. Earlier this year, we beat Garrison Forrest, one of Baltimore's traditional powers, and that was a big encouragement to me that we're starting to get up there."
Merritt also took her team to England and Scotland this year, where it won seven of 10 matches against reputable competition.
St. Agnes' success has been particularly remarkable, especially since its program was started 10 years ago by Cathy Jenkins, who had never played or been exposed to the sport as a youth.
Under Jenkins, the school has won the 11-member Independent School Association title six of the last seven years. St. Agnes is undefeated in the league this year and has lost only nine games in its history.
"I never really think about us being a prototype or something like that," Jenkins said. "I don't understand why we do so well, and I feel our success has got to end sometime. But I can't control that. I'm going to continue doing the same things I've always done."
There are, of course, several factors that help St. Agnes' success, aside from Jenkins' coaching abilities. St. Agnes, Sidwell and National Cathedral have middle schools and are able to expose students to the sport at an earlier age. Fourth graders at National Cathedral, for example, play a form of the game called "Stxball" in which the sticks are made of a softer, more flexible material to prevent injuries. As the students grow older, they are exposed to more sophisticated versions of the game and compete at different levels.
Middle schools are not the only paths to success. Sidwell Coach Anne Monahan, who played as a youngster in Philadelphia, says that as the level of competent and knowledgeable coaching improves, so will the game's fortunes. She says Holy Childs is an example of a school where the youngsters are not exposed to the sport before ninth grade, but the right coaching has made its teams competitive.