Soccer is Lauren Russell's passion. She excels with an inner drive that has helped her to become the leader of defending Southern Maryland Athletic Conference champion Westlake, as well as one of the best players in the conference.

"She plays all the time," Wolverines Coach Will Morris said of his junior captain. "She's a 24-7 soccer player, and she's not just out there. She's playing at a very high level."

Russell's enthusiasm for the sport has led her to new teams to refine her skills. She recently joined the Freestate Shooters of Bowie, a club team.

Watching the Shooters "made me want to play like them," Russell said. "It made me want to test myself. Watching them, it made me a lot more passionate about soccer because they're such a good team."

That quest to improve has made Russell excited about this season at Westlake.

As a first-team All-Extra selection as a sophomore, the speedy forward served as a complement to senior forward Thuy Le. Le was a two-time All-State selection and a four-time All-SMAC team member and was named second-team All-Met. She scored 16 goals and assisted on 14 in leading the Wolverines to the conference title and the 3A South Region semifinals.

Le's graduation means that the Wolverines are now Russell's to lead. She scored 16 goals and had nine assists a year ago as Le attracted much of the defenders' attention. Morris said that for Westlake to duplicate its success, Russell must account for two goals per game, either by scoring or assisting.

"I had one of the best players to ever come through the conference," Morris said. Russell "could lean on her. This year, she's that person."

Russell isn't shying away from the challenge.

"I hope I can step in and fill the role of Thuy," she said. "It's a really hard role to fill. I'm trying to be a leader this year, trying to score, trying to be like Thuy."

Russell began playing soccer when she was 7. Throughout her youth, she honed her ballhandling and shooting skills under the tutelage of her older brother Ryan, a first-team All-Met selection as a senior at Westlake in 2003.

What sets Russell apart, Morris said, is her ability to apply to game situations the skills she works on in practice.

"She can do things at speed," Morris said. "Anybody can cut a ball when you're just sitting there and no one is on you. Her technical skill doesn't break down when the game gets quicker."

Westlake's chances of defending its SMAC title don't rest solely on Russell's shoulders, however. Seven other starters from last season's 12-4 team are back. Sophomore goalkeeper Casey Durham was named honorable mention All-Extra as a freshman. Defenders Julie Dempsey and Meghan Plumb are expected to help shore up the backfield, and senior forward Liz Striegel is a solid front line mate for Russell.

"We have a good chance," Russell said. "We'll see how it goes this season. I think we have a good shot."

The Westlake team captain, Russell has been playing soccer since she was 7.Westlake players run during practice: Lauren Russell, right, and goalkeeper Casey Durham, left. Russell had 16 goals and nine assists last season.