(The Ruden Report spent last weekend at The Northern Rise girls lacrosse showcase to go behind the scenes of the sport’s summer circuit. In this second part, a look at the overall process with three Fairfield County Clubs)
GILL, Mass. — Local fields filled with kids of varying ages playing lacrosse have become a familiar site in the spring and summer throughout Fairfield County, an area that was at the forefront of the sport’s continuing boom.
Take those packed areas, put it on a dose of steroids — a near-fatal dose — and you have last weekend’s The Northern Rise, which bills itself as the premier girls lacrosse showcase in the northeast. It would be hard for another tournament to contend otherwise. For four days, nearly 50 clubs — all with multiple teams in four age groups – from 13 states took part before over 100 college coaches at the campus of Northfields Mount Hermon, a prestigious private school with a wooded campus large enough to require dozens from among the hundreds of workers to shuttle in golf carts players, coaches, officials and fans between the 10 spread out fields.
For those like Darien High School’s Laura Murphy, who plays for the CT Grizzlies club owned by Blue Wave coach Lisa Lindley, and has already given a verbal commitment to the University of Pennsylvania, these showcases are now the chance to get back into a competitive environment after the intensity of the FCIAC season.
“It’s great to play with other girls who aren’t necessarily on your high school team,” Murphy said. “It’s good practice after the spring and it’s great to help the other girls.”
For “the other girls,” those not wearing an armband that signifies a prior commitment, it can be a pressure-packed situation, with futures at stake as players try to impress the coaches with their skills and ability in the hope of attracting offers. It is like one great talent show, and with more and more players giving earlier verbal commitments, age is not a factor.
Holly Rivers of the Yellow Jackets North club just finished her freshman season at Danbury High School. This should still be a time of relaxation and ease, but as she said following a game last Friday, this is the first showcase where her emotions have changed.
“Last year it wasn’t as nerve-wracking,” Rivers admitted. “This year is a little more because I started the recruiting process. No matter what I hustle 110 percent, but when I know a college coach is watching I try even harder.”
One can debate whether such pressure and important life decisions should be placed on athletes with just one year of high school under their belt, but the fact remains this is the current landscape. It is like a game of musical chairs: land a spot with a coveted college before its needs are filled.
Roma Villemure plays for SoundCrosse, a club run by her coach at Greenwich High School, Caitlin Young. She almost echoed Rivers’ words verbatim.
“Sometimes these get nerve-wracking,” she said. “People around you are nice so that helps a lot. You see the coaches. I try my best when I’m playing and when I see a coach give 100 percent.”
Players are cognizant of coaches both on and off the field. They say it makes them put an emphasis on the way they comport themselves between games. Everything is about a good impression. If showcases were a beauty contest, you don’t want to just be the overall winner but take Miss Congeniality as well.
Jaime Williams, the coach at Danbury High School who works with Yellow Jackets North, said few aspects go overlooked.
“For offensive players, sometimes they think they have to score goals but sometimes coaches want to see how you move off the ball,” Williams said. “Defensively, that you are playing team defense and not just looking to take the ball away. That you play a good all-around game.”
As a former assistant at Western Connecticut, Williams has been involved on both sides of the process.
“Showcases are different from your high school season,” Williams said. “You want to play your best and you want to win. College coaches want to see the teams that move on.”
For the college coaches, showcases are a talent buffet, the chance to see as many players possible in a short period of time. It is an endless cycle that keeps many on the road for a good part of the summer.
“One of the biggest benefits you have is a lot of girls in one area, so it’s easier on us for travel purposes,” said the assistant coach at a Division I school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was uncertain if commenting was an NCAA rules violation. “Some girls don’t play on the greatest high school teams, so getting to play with a better group of girls on their club team is really great for us.”
The coach said she has discovered a number of top players who were not on her radar prior to a showcase.
The entire circuit is a huge expense for families, who often pay significant sums to play on a top club program. In a sense, it is like the financial commitment made on tutoring for academic purposes. That cost escalates with lessons, camps, hotel and travel, and training at specialized facilities. The parents of a player from a Fairfield County club estimated they have spent about $8,000 a year for the past six years.
One of the best overall perspectives was provided by Emily Tropsa, a 2012 graduate of Darien about to enter her senior year playing at Gettysburg. She is currently an assistant coach for one of the Grizzlies’ two 2017 teams.
“When I was playing it was not just focusing on getting into school,” Tropsa said. “I feel the process has been pushed up since I’ve been there. The girls I’m coaching, when I was their age I was just playing to get better, to have fun. Now the process is starting so much earlier. You can tell they play a lot more nervous.”
Tropsa said there is now a more distinct dichotomy between high school and club lacrosse.
“Playing for your high school is so much different,” she said. “You have so much pride in your high school. You want to play well to be successful. It becomes a lot more individualized when you step on the field for your club team because you know coaches are watching and you want to impress the right people.”
For the fortunate, The Northern Rise and showcases like it end with college offers, verbal commitments and the security that comes with them. But as the race becomes even more intense, one wonders at what cost.
“It has taken a lot more passion out of the players’ game,” Tropsa said. “We played for fun and getting better. Now there’s so much focus on getting into school that it takes away your love for the game.”