Fifth in an occasional series on how area high school athletes are spending their summers with hopes of continuing their sports careers in college.
Kaylee Black never touched a lacrosse stick before she tried out for Chopticon's varsity team as a freshman in 2002. This month, Black will arrive on the campus of Division III Averett University in Danville, Va., having been recruited to play the sport.
"I got pretty lucky," said Black, an All-Extra midfielder who helped the Braves win their first regional title last spring. "But now, when I would drive by a park [in St. Mary's County], I would see a whole lot of young girls playing, like 11- and 12-year-olds. Probably, in a few years, they're going to be the ones playing in college."
Lacrosse has a long relationship with private schools throughout the Washington-Baltimore region. Several public schools in Montgomery County, Baltimore and Annapolis have fielded varsity teams for more than a decade -- the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association held its first state tournament in 1990 -- but Calvert and St. Mary's counties did not sponsor varsity lacrosse teams until 2000. Charles County does not offer varsity lacrosse.
Until five years ago, Southern Maryland teenagers who wanted to play lacrosse had few options. Even though Maryland has long been a national hotbed for the sport, Southern Maryland gave the sport the cold shoulder.
"In Southern Maryland, it's pretty hard," said Drew Collins, who just graduated from St. Mary's Ryken and will play at the University of Pennsylvania this fall. "In Southern Maryland, most people haven't seen the game. You've got to travel a lot. It's a pain, but that's how you've got to get started here."
And that has been the credo for Southern Maryland lacrosse players with college aspirations. Without many local opportunities, they have been forced to trek northward to find a club team.
But that is starting to change. The sport is booming nationally, attracting die-hards on the West Coast for the first time and becoming a presence in more colleges' athletic departments, and it's finally claiming a spot in the Southern Maryland sports forum. Local lacrosse players are beginning to realize that playing in college is a possibility.
"I realized that in order for Southern Maryland to have an impact on the sport like Baltimore and Annapolis have, you needed a feeder program," said Pam Hageman, who started the St. Mary's Girls' Lacrosse League in 2004. "By the time they got to high school, we were behind the eight ball."
Southern Maryland boys could join the Calvert Lacrosse Club, which former Maryland player Lenny Casalino founded in 1986. It competed against some high school varsity programs until Southern Maryland schools began to offer the sport.
Like Black, most Southern Maryland players -- both boys and girls -- were new to the sport upon entering high school, but that's not the case anymore. The sport's growing popularity, along with the club programs, is giving players an earlier introduction to the sport.
"When I started playing, I'd be dying out there," said St. Mary's Ryken rising senior Joe Wascavage, who is being recruited by several Division I programs and started playing in the seventh grade. "It's 90 degrees and I'm saying, 'I want a break,' and it's like, 'Sorry, you can't because there's no one else to come in.' Now, it's even hard getting playing time for all the kids."
When Hageman started her program last year, she had hoped to get 60 girls to join; instead, she got 160. This year, she got more than 200.
St. Mary's Ryken assistant coach Jay Sothoron is running a lacrosse camp at Leonard Hall Recreation Center in Leonardtown for 9- to 13-year-olds. He has 75 kids this summer, the most in the three years he has held the camp.
Casalino said, "It's not unheard of now for a kid to have seven years' experience before they get to high school."
The increasing popularity of the sport means increasing competition for scholarships. That also means players need to learn the game earlier.
"Girls who are athletic and have that ability can pick it up pretty quickly," Hageman said. "You don't have to be the tallest girl as you would in basketball. You don't have to be the fastest girl as you would in soccer. What you have to have is good stick skills, and that comes from practice and that comes early on."
Calverton rising senior David Spaulding said his skills would be nowhere near where they are today -- he orally committed to play at defending NCAA champion Johns Hopkins last month -- had he not started learning the sport in the fifth grade with the Calvert Lacrosse Club.
"Just playing with a stick as much as you can is so important," Spaulding said, adding that he had trouble catching and throwing when he was younger. Charles County's public high schools have yet to embrace the sport, though Thomas Stone has sported a club team. Hageman said she had one girl from Charles County in her club last year; 10 joined this year. She has a meeting planned this month with Charles parks and recreation officials "to give them whatever assistance they need to get their feeder program off the ground."
Collins, who commuted nearly 45 minutes each way from his La Plata home to St. Mary's Ryken in Leonardtown, said learning the sport early and joining a club program before high school is essential for anyone aspiring to play in college.
"It's definitely going to get a lot more competitive," Collins said. "Kids are going to have to start a lot earlier just like [in] soccer, basketball and baseball."