When she's on a basketball court, it's hard to imagine Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is only 14 years old. The 5-foot-9 guard's nimble spin moves, delicate shooting touch and tenacious play near the basket have helped her teams win local and national titles.
Those skills also have allowed her to become the youngest player ever invited to join the elite 17-and-under Boo Williams Summer League team. Area coaches expect the Alexandria resident to be one of the top high school players in Northern Virginia this winter, and dozens of recruiters from the country's top women's college teams already are fighting for her attention.
The Washington area has produced girls' basketball prodigies like Ruffin-Pratt before, but there's a difference now. The ranks of young prospects just a bit less talented than Ruffin-Pratt are thick, coaches say. In fact, the depth of girls' basketball talent in the area -- bolstered by communities that put a premium on achievement on the court and in the classroom, a fast-growing club system and the impact of the WNBA and gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic teams -- has made Washington a hotbed for the women's game.
"The word is out," said Duke Coach Gail Goestenkors, whose Blue Devils advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals last season with area standouts Monique Currie (Bullis) and Wanisha Smith (Riverdale Baptist) playing significant roles. "We made the commitment early on in my career that if we wanted to build a strong program, we had to get into [the Washington] area. There are so many great players and great students as well."
Ruffin-Pratt's Boo Williams team will be among 20 squads with area ties competing in the prestigious U.S. Junior National Tournament, which will start Friday at three area colleges. Other area teams expected to do well are Bishop McNamara's summer team, the Fairfax Stars and Team Excel.
The three-day tournament will draw hundreds of college coaches. Many undoubtedly will be looking at Washington area players -- as they have in the past. About 2.2 percent of the 4,778 women who competed on Division I basketball teams last season were plucked from the Washington area.
Last summer, a record six local high school players, including 2005 All-Met Player of the Year Marissa Coleman of St. John's High, competed on the East team at USA Basketball's Youth Development Festival in Colorado. Coleman, who will play for Maryland this fall, is traveling with the U.S. under-19 national team this summer.
Two years ago, Bishop McNamara became the first area girls' team to earn a No. 1 national ranking by USA Today.
"With the women's game growing, and girls playing at much younger ages, we're going to see even more Tierras that can play at a higher level," said George Porcha, who will coach Ruffin-Pratt, an incoming freshman, on the T.C. Williams varsity team this winter.
One reason the region's talent base has grown is the number of middle- to high-income and highly educated families, coaches say.
"We're a region that I call 'Push, Push, Push,' " said Westfield High Coach Pat Deegan, who has coached at Northern Virginia schools for 35 years. "We have a mind-set in Washington: If you're not great, you're not good. The standard demands excellence."
That ethic is extended to academics, coaches say, and it helps make the area's top players that much more attractive to college recruiters. There are highly regarded schools, public and private, in the area. In a recent survey of the top 1,000 public high schools in the country by Newsweek, the Washington area had 65 -- including 12 in the top 100.
Like many other players, Ruffin-Pratt is accelerating her academic growth as well as her athletic growth. She took Algebra I last year, a course typically taught to freshmen at T.C. Williams.
"It's a full package," Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said of the area's prospects. "You get the full students. A lot of players are able to qualify [for college scholarships]. In some pockets and regions, you're not going to get the most talented players to qualify. That's what separates this region from others. They have talent and academics."
The nationwide growth of women's and girls' sports over the past three decades has been a factor in the development of girls' basketball in the Washington area. Young players across the country have been able to follow a professional league, the WNBA, since it was created in 1997, as well as three straight gold medal-winning Olympic teams featuring stars such as Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie.
The Washington Mystics, who joined the WNBA in 1998, have led the league in attendance in six of their seven years; they averaged 12,615 per game at MCI Center last season. The Maryland women's team has rebounded, finishing last season with its most victories (21) since the 1992-93 season. The Terrapins also set an ACC women's basketball attendance record in February when 17,243 people attended a game against Duke.
"Kids grow up watching basketball today more so than in the past," said Frese, who has successfully recruited the All-Met players of the year for 2005 (Coleman) and 2003 (Kalika France of Bishop McNamara). "Having the Mystics, kids are able to get there and see what they are able to possibly achieve. They just have so much exposure to set goals."
Already, Ruffin-Pratt has met her favorite pro players: the Los Angeles Sparks' Chamique Holdsclaw, who used to play for Washington, and the Mystics' Alana Beard. Those players, she said, "are progressing just like the guys did in the NBA. If I want to go pro, they have given me a heads-up on the way they made it through."
College recruiters also credit the area's AAU system. Goestenkors says it is one of the most organized in the country and one of the best at developing the skills of players such as Ruffin-Pratt. The Potomac Valley AAU District -- which comprises the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia -- had just five AAU clubs seven years ago, said Jody Patrick-Lavin, the district's chairman. Now, there are 53 clubs, 181 teams and 2,882 girls competing in the region.
Of the 53 area clubs, 33 had teams that qualified for national championship tournaments this summer. The AAU held its first 9-and-under national championship this year, and Potomac Valley sent nearly a dozen teams. Five local teams advanced to the 10-and-under national championship held last month in Florida.
With so few teams in the past, "a lot of kids weren't getting the opportunity to play when they were capable of playing on a team," said Aggie McCormick-Dix, who founded the Fairfax Stars eight years ago. "We had an enormous number of great girls' athletes, but the existing teams couldn't meet the need and teach them skills. At this level, there's an enormous opportunity, and it's amazing."
The growth of AAU teams also allows parents, such as Ruffin-Pratt's mother, Deneen Pratt, to search for the best competitive environment -- even though some coaches say they abhor the practice. After Ruffin-Pratt won the national title with the Fairfax Stars last summer, her mother started researching. She said she was looking for a team that would allow her daughter to face the best competition.
They settled on the Virginia Beach-based Boo Williams team, with which Ruffin-Pratt will travel to Brazil, Portland, Ore., Chicago and Florida over a two-month span. That leaves time for just one brief weekend trip home.
Even her Boo Williams teammates, most of whom are three years older than her, say the basketball scene has changed dramatically since they were in middle school.
"It's amazing to me," said Boo Williams's Kaili McLaren, a 6-3 All-Met who will be a senior at Good Counsel this fall. "I never experienced anything like this as an eighth grader. . . . I think this area is loaded with talent. It's surprising how many girls have picked up the sport of basketball. It wasn't that big when I was little. I definitely didn't see it as competitively like this when I was younger."
Playing for teams like this costs money, and Deneen Pratt estimates that she has spent nearly $3,000 annually for her daughter to participate. Most AAU organizations conduct fundraisers and solicit sponsors to raise money to defray a portion of the travel costs, but parents must cover the difference.
"I don't shop a lot anymore," joked Deneen Pratt, a single mother raising two other daughters.
Competing alongside All-Met caliber players such as McLaren and Forest Park's Monica Wright, Ruffin-Pratt does not play as much as she did for the Stars. But it's all worth it, she says.
"I'm getting better as the season is going along. When I start playing varsity, I'll be ready for that," she said. "Playing against the older girls now, I get to experience stuff so much earlier. . . . I think I could be one of the best players coming out of the D.C. area. I started early so I can be one of the best."