When American Indians first played lacrosse, finding open space was rarely a problem. Although contests lasted for days and often included nasty injuries for some of the hundreds of competitors, scheduling games back then was a lot simpler than the job facing the Washington Area Lacrosse League today.

The constant search for open fields and committed coaches for the 18 WALL teams playing in Maryland, Virginia and the District can test any organizer's dedication to the sport.

However, judging from the league's revamped organization and continued growth -- it has doubled in size since 1980 -- it appears that all the WALL is in capable hands. Enthusiastic coaches and parents are building a league that will give area high-school students a chance to showcase their lacrosse talents.

In fact, coaches involved foresee even greater growth ahead for the league. According to McLean Coach Earl Brewer, ''This area can be a real lacrosse hotbed.'' Steve Price of the Lake Braddock Lacrosse Club said, ''The potential in Northern Virginia is explosive. It can be almost as big as soccer.''

The WALL is unusual among area athletic leagues because it combines high school varsity teams and independent clubs. There are eight private schools competing -- Bishop Ireton, DeMatha, Gonzaga, Good Counsel, Sandy Spring Friends, St. Andrew's, St. James and St. John's -- and 10 clubs -- Bethesda, Braddock Road, Lake Braddock, McLean, Oakton, Paint Branch, Prince George's County, Robinson, Springfield and Vienna.

The two divisions of play are club and interscholastic. Each team must play all the others in its division, but all are encouraged to play other teams in the league. The best eight from the entire league are chosen for playoffs that begin May 14.

This year, the WALL champion meets the Interstate Athletic Conference champion in an unofficial area championship game tentatively scheduled for May 21.

College coaches are keeping a closer eye on the league as a growing number of highly-regarded prospects emerge from the competition. Tom Worstell, a starting sophomore midfielder for Maryland, which is ranked fifth nationally, played for the Braddock Road Club. His coach at Maryland, Dick Edell, said, ''Worstell will be as good a midfielder as there is in the game.''

Edell and other coaches will be looking for other Worstells in the WALL in the coming years. ''It's a relatively new league, but the players coming out will definitely get better. It will be nice to be able to look in your own back yard for recruits,'' said Edell.

Along with many others in the area, Georgetown Coach Bill Gorrow is excited about the Metro Conference plans to make lacrosse a conference sport next year without affecting its teams' WALL status.

''These schools have outstanding athletes,'' he said. ''Put a stick in their hands, give them a year or two, and you're going to get some good lacrosse players.''

Lacrosse players in Fairfax County hope to get school backing as well. School support would certainly raise the profile of the sport, and would alleviate the need to raise money. It would also help obtain access to playing fields, always at a premium in Fairfax County.

Peter Berg, commissioner of the Oakton Lacrosse Club, is a professional lobbyist. He and other lacrosse supporters intend to ''do a substantial amount of homework and convince the (school) board to get behind lacrosse.'' Despite Berg's confidence, his task will be an uphill struggle at best.

''We're in a position right now where we are at the end of our resources. We don't have enough coaches, field space, or money for all our existing programs,'' said Bill Savage, Coordinator of Student Activities for the Fairfax County School Board, when asked about lacrosse's chance of becoming a public school sport.

Savage said a majority of the system's schools (at least 12) would have to be in favor of the new sport for the board to consider it. And even if enough schools were interested, it would be difficult to convince authorities that lacrosse should be a new sport chosen among others that are also interested in receiving school funding.

John Dodd once organized a public high school team in New Jersey. Dodd, a former assistant coach at the University of North Carolina, one of the premier programs in the country, is not optimistic about the chances that lacrosse will become a high school sport in Fairfax County.

''It would be great to have school backing, but there needs to s groundswell or some political pressure,'' said the Vienna Lacrosse Club coach.

Despite the lack of school funding and the scramble for field space, the WALL's future looks promising. A combination of club-sponsored teams for grade school players and enthusiastic supporters will foster growth.

Lacrosse will sell itself, predicted Dodd. ''Lacrosse will grow without school backing,'' he said. ''Because it's a sport that captures kids' imaginations.''