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Island girls cross bridge to win scholarships to top colleges

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of May 30, 2013)
Photo: The nationally ranked Vero Beach High School lacrosse team.

When college application time rolled around for senior Meredith Baker, she didn’t have to strain to catch the eye of the Ivy League. She was yearbook editor-in-chief, treasurer of student government, and a National Merit finalist. She passed all seven of her AP exams. And she could have written a dazzling essay on the challenges of playing competitive lacrosse on the best team in the state. Turns out, she didn’t need to apply anywhere. Meredith had already been scouted by Cornell University and by February of her junior year, had given the school her verbal commitment to attend – and play for the Cornell lacrosse team.

Meredith joins a strong and savvy bunch of girls from the barrier island who, along with their parents, understand that playing on the nationally-ranked Vero Beach High School lacrosse team could mean admission and substantial scholarships at the nation’s top colleges and universities.

Katy Pridemore, last fall’s No. 2 rising junior in the country, lives in Castaway Cove. She and her sister Hannah, a year younger, have committed to playing for the University of Florida’s young but remarkable team, ranked No. 4 after only its fourth season.

Olivia Long, whose family lives in the Moorings, just finished her freshman year at Johns Hopkins. MacKenzie Smith is playing at Vanderbilt. Lucy Sexton is playing at Davidson College and Gracee Hendrix is at Virginia Tech. Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan’s daughter Courtney is playing for the University of Virginia. Alexis Moirano was recruited by the University of New Hampshire.

In all, 29 former VBHS team members are playing college lacrosse, according to the website of Stickbenders, the local lacrosse club. They include Elizabeth Upton at Swathmore, Jennifer Leffew at Harvard, and another player for Johns Hopkins, Camille Kramer.

Several of the VBHS players are transfers from St. Edward’s School, one-fifth the size of VBHS’s 2700 students with an active – if less competitive – lacrosse program starting in sixth grade.

And while VBHS is getting all the glory with its eighth consecutive state championship, the tiny St. Ed’s team is also getting colleges’ attention. Maddy Blakeman is headed for Loyola, a Division 1 team, to which her sister Olivia, a St. Ed’s senior, has given a verbal commitment.  Chloe O’Haire is headed for UF with senior Christiana Butz right behind her. Morgan Falkenhagen, also a senior, has committed to Furman.

In 1995, when girls’ lacrosse began at St. Edward’s, there were only two other teams in this area to play against. Today there are 147 Florida high school teams. VBHS is at the top of the heap, but St. Edward’s holds its own, says Michele Sternberg, its former coach and a pioneer in the sport statewide.

An English teacher who now counsels St. Ed’s students on college choices, Sternberg was a top college player at U. Va. and before that, at McDonogh School in Maryland – the top-ranked team in the nation that bested Vero in March.

Sternberg arrived in Vero at age 22 and discovered lacrosse was almost nonexistent.  

After she showed her husband Jon how to “hold a stick like a girl,” the Sternbergs held lacrosse clinics for everyone from soccer moms to high school coaches, helping schools build teams from Orlando to Wellington.

“I certainly didn’t have an agenda” about developing lacrosse in Florida, she says. “I just wanted St. Ed’s to be able to have some competition.”

Today, there is plenty. In 2006, 52,000 high school girls participated nationwide; in 2012, that grew to 75,000, with the Southeast and Midwest regions leading the charge.

VBHS girls lacrosse is currently ranked 2nd among the south’s  427 participating high schools. Nationally, it was ranked 37th this year among 2661 teams. It ranked 11th last year and 15th in 2011.

How is tiny Vero able to develop such coveted collegiate lacrosse players?  VBHS Coach Shannon Dean, a deputy sheriff and VBHS resource officer who has coached the team since 2001, says it’s the weather, allowing for year-round play. “It’s also commitment,” he says, “from the players and the parents.”

Getting seen by colleges around the country is a whole other ball game, so to speak. Vero is a “non-traditional” area – one where lacrosse has not been played historically. Its players have to travel to big tournaments attended by college recruiters.

A few independent clubs like Xteam nationally and Lax Maniax, a Florida organization with a Vero chapter, are helping get the girls in front of scouts.

Xteam is run by Crista Samaras, a Princeton grad and gold medal winner for Team USA in the 2001 World Cup. The program is pricey: up to $4,000 a season. But Vero lacrosse moms like Leslie Swan and Dr. Mary Baker are convinced of its value, saying the program prepared their girls not just for college lacrosse, but for life.

The program offers everything from coaching to college selection. Along with top tournament play, the girls learn to make videos, e-mail colleges, and be persistent. For three years in a row, Meredith Baker travelled to Palm Springs, California to the top recruiting tournament in the nation. “You have to get to the hotbeds of lacrosse,” says her dad, Dr. Seth Baker.

On Xteam’s ten-day college intensive – 13 college visits wedged between two tournaments and a run on the Brooklyn Bridge – the girls were assigned an essay before bed, after an exhausting day and with a meeting in the morning.

“One parent asked, ‘Why are you trying to kill our girls?’” recalls Mary Baker, Meredith’s mom. “And the answer was, ‘I’m trying to simulate an Ivy or a Duke. They’re not going to be taking underwater basket-weaving.’”

Meredith credits Xteam with helping her nail down a career path. The program makes girls fill out   freshman course schedules for each school courting them, to see how requirements would accommodate their lacrosse schedules. That caused Meredith to discover Cornell’s top-ranked School of Hotel Administration.

But it is her teammates at VBHS that she thanks for the quality of her play. “I played with some of the best girls that have ever played the sport,” she says. “That’s what got my talent to the level it is.”

Soon she will take it to the next level, as has Courtney Swan, a top Vero player now at U. Va.

“She’s been lucky, she’s only had one injury,” says her mom, Leslie Swan. “After games, she’s always full of black-and-blue marks, but she’s tough.”

Toughness includes the discipline to organize class loads around lacrosse. While there are advisors and tutors for these “scholar-athletes,” the young women have to factor in fatigue, injuries and let-downs, and somewhere along the line, a social life.

“It does take all of your time,” warns Courtney, who at the same time sings the praises of staying in great hotels on the road, and eating at great restaurants – including the luxury of ordering ahead. 

For all the hard work and perks, lacrosse also makes for rich family memories. Seth Baker recalls the bitterly cold afternoon at the family cabin in North Carolina when Meredith got the call she was waiting for. “Ithaca! Holy s---!” she called out, reading from her cell phone. “I think this is Cornell.”

She rushed outside to the deck for better cell reception. After a while, her dad brought her a sweatshirt. Then he brought her a blanket. By the time she hung up – 90 minutes later – she had five blankets wrapped around her, he recalls.

“I’m in love,” she told her parents.