Soccer players still have about three weeks before high school tryouts begin, yet many of them feel the initial phase of making the team is underway. On the lush fields at Howard Community College in Columbia, returning players from eight county high schools are mixing with incoming freshmen for the first time.

Players believe the 7-on-7 girls' summer league, which is run by HCC, is an integral part of the preseason because it gives them a head start on learning to play together and the freedom to play any position, and it also polishes their skills and fitness.

"It's all about just playing together and trying to find where everyone fits," said Lindsay Conway, a rising senior midfielder at Reservoir. "People say that championships are won in the offseason, so I think it's important that we have a lot of girls playing out here."

Coaches believe that the summer league provides useful workouts but stress that they do not take the place of upcoming tryouts.

"Whatever a player does this summer has no bearing on tryouts. Every girl comes to tryouts with a clean slate," Wilde Lake Coach Dave Procida said. "I think summer league is more about camaraderie and enjoying playing together than it is about fitness or tactical improvement." It's at tryouts "where you earn your spot on the team."

But players have a different view, especially since the league ends on Aug. 10, five days before tryouts begin. Those who struggle during the eight-game summer schedule do not have time to improve significantly.

The 7-on-7 league -- where games are played on a half-size field and consist of two 25-minute halves -- also mirrors high school tryouts because coaches often measure players' strengths on their ability to excel in a confined space, where skill trumps speed.

"Playing in this league in some ways is a lot like what we do in tryouts because we spend a lot of time playing in short-sided games," Wilde Lake senior defender Amber Madore said. "Playing 7-on-7 makes you work the ball down the field as a team. You just can't kick it down the field and chase it."

The summer league atmosphere is more relaxed than that of the high-pressure high school season. Most teams do not have coaches barking orders on the sidelines. Instead, team captains take charge.

The high school coaches, who watch alongside players' parents because state high school athletic rules prohibit them from guiding summer squads, are just happy their players have carved out time to play during the offseason.

"I'm just glad they are playing together because I know how busy these girls can be over the summer, especially with the commitments they have to their club teams," Glenelg Coach Dean Sheridan said. "We try to keep it as low-key as possible. I see it as us putting a team out there so our girls can just have fun."

But players also want to win. Glenelg entered the week 3-0 after posting lopsided victories over Long Reach, Reservoir and Hammond, and though the wins meant nothing in the grand scheme, junior defender Alissa Bourne said they can't be completely overlooked.

"Winning is not the top priority, but it's still important because that means you played well as a team," she said. "But if we were going out there and losing all the time, I would definitely be concerned, because we don't have very long before the high school season begins."

Glenelg's Kristen Krammer, left, kicks the ball past Reservoir goalie Tina Payne during summer-league action.Glenelg's Alissa Bourne, left, tries to elude Lindsay Conway of Reservoir at Howard Community College.