Chesapeake High's Alex Mavris could feel their eyes on her. She knew they were looking at her, because she had been looking for them.
It was June 19 at Cherokee High School in New Jersey, and Mavris was playing for her club lacrosse team -- Chesapeake Club Lacrosse, better known as CCLax -- at the highly competitive National Draw Tournament. The eyes belonged to coaches of elite college women's lacrosse programs, who had made the trip to the tournament to identify potential recruits.
Mavris noticed, in particular, a coach from the University of California at Berkeley. That school had sent her a letter a year earlier.
"Everyone that walks by, I try to see where they're from," said Mavris, who will be a senior in the fall. "I guess it makes me play harder. . . . You can see them on the sidelines with their notebooks."
Mavris's high school teammate, Ashleigh Gender, tries not to return the stares, preferring not to put added pressure on herself. But she knows coaches are watching -- representatives from the University of Maryland, University of Virginia, Towson and Duke, among others, were at the National Draw Tournament -- and that is why she was there.
Mavris and Gender joined the CCLax programs for this experience. Both have aspirations of playing Division I college lacrosse, and both know that playing in tournaments like the National Draw, the Ocean City Classic held in early June, the Vail Shootout in Colorado and the upcoming All Star Express Tournament in Kent Island will help them fulfill those hopes.
CCLax was created by Sue Chittim, St. Mary's girls' lacrosse coach. It was an offshoot of a program called Rounders that Chittim began in the late 1990s to give elite players the chance to play together and showcase their skills in national tournaments during the summer before their senior years -- their "recruitment summer."
"Out of that came a need, I felt, for a more organized kind of program that wasn't just focused on one graduation year but focused on building them from baby lacrosse players to the year that's most crucial: the year they get recruited," Chittim said. "I felt we had to be very organized . . . . [CCLax] gives girls a chance to see what the recruiting process and tournament process is like."
From that one Rounders team, CCLax has grown rapidly. It has 12 teams for girls in six classes -- from those who will graduate next spring through those who are scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2010. CCLax also has 30 coaches (at least two per team, with two special goalie coaches), including Severn Coach Renie Sotiropoulos, Spalding Coach Dana Rigot, South River Coach Julie Norton and former South River coach Kim McNemar.
"I never anticipated the success we've had with this, and I think it's because we have 30 coaches who are vested and devoted to these girls," Chittim said. "Those 30 coaches, they are my right arm. Without those 30 coaches, we could never do this."
As has been the case for years with high school basketball, more lacrosse recruiting is being done during offseason showcase tournaments than during the high school season.
"I liken it to AAU basketball," Chittim said. "Take the kids on my team. All those kids know how to play and want to play. If you come take a look at a group of kids that all want to play and all can play, you can see the players that are really good."
Such recognition is even more important for players like Mavris and Gender, as well as Lauren Walker, a senior at Old Mill High, and Melissa Howard, a senior at North County High. Those four play for schools whose lacrosse programs are not among the traditionally elite in the area. Chesapeake went 7-6 last year, North County was 5-11, and even though Old Mill had a strong 10-6 mark, none of those schools received the same recognition as private schools like Severn or St. Mary's, or even down-county public school powers like South River, Severna Park and Broadneck. According to Chittim, coaches from elite colleges probably didn't make those up-county schools' games part of their schedules.
"Those four are from the northern part of the county, which is not a lacrosse hotbed," Chittim said. "So if they didn't play club lacrosse, they wouldn't be recruited. A college coach is not going to go see an Old Mill-North County game. It's a waste of time."
Chittim said even games between elite high school teams are not as valuable to college coaches as a trip to one of the tournaments CCLax plays each summer.
"If you see Severna Park against Broadneck, you see four or five kids that will never play college lacrosse," Chittim said. "If you're playing club lacrosse, our CCLax top team against someone like M&D lacrosse [another elite club program, based in Howard County], you're watching the top against the top, and you'll be able to tell the difference right away."
The difference is apparent to players as well.
"In high school, people just play for fun," Mavris said. "We have people from all over the area, and even other areas, who are serious.