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Bay Shore's Leonard masters challenge of lacrosse

Northwestern University-bound Bay Shore High School senior Alyssa

Northwestern University-bound Bay Shore High School senior Alyssa Leonard, right, participates in varsity girls lacrosse team practice held at the school. (March 12, 2010) Photo Credit: James A. Escher / Freelance/Photo by James A. Escher

Alyssa Leonard has baby pink lacrosse stick, will travel.

Her dad will rib her gently about it from time to time and even Leonard, the Bay Shore senior who was raised in the proud tradition of so-called tomboys everywhere, admits it's a little bit funny.

The stick, she explains, is a gift from a future teammate at Northwestern - five-time national champions and home to the top-ranked collegiate women's lacrosse program in the nation. As Leonard holds it securely, one gets the feeling that the stick could be bedazzled - if it's good enough for Northwestern, it's good enough for her.

"I think I was surprised that any school was interested in me," said Leonard, one of Bay Shore's captains this season. She did, after all, begin playing organized lacrosse only 11/2 years ago. It's her fourth varsity sport - a new challenge she picked up in her junior year after mastering basketball (All-League), softball (All-American and All-State) and especially volleyball (All-State and League II Player of the Year).

"It was like, 'Let's be serious here, I'm going to play volleyball in college,'" she said. "[I'd say] 'I don't know what you guys don't get.' I didn't think anything of [looking into lacrosse schools]. I looked around just in case."

But Leonard, who made her mark as a varsity libero and outside hitter for Bay Shore's volleyball team and holds school records in digs (1,128) and kills (1,398), wasn't satisfied with the college offers, her father, Brian, said. They all wanted her at libero, but Leonard prefers to be an outside hitter - a more aggressive position that generally favors athletes taller than her 5 feet, 10 inches.

The word was out: Alyssa Leonard was on the market. The colleges listened.

"I realized this girl needed to be seen by the best," said lacrosse coach Allison Pfeffer. "Alyssa is a tremendous athlete. I was never concerned with her catching onto the sport, but I didn't expect the incredible level" to which she performed.

Colleges knocked on her door and came to see her play, until finally, Pfeffer told Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte, a Bay Shore alum, that Leonard had chosen the Wildcats.

It was the academic opportunities and the chance to play for Amonte, whom Pfeffer called one of the greatest coaches in the country, that eventually helped Leonard decide.

"I definitely wanted to go to a college program and make a difference," she said. "But who doesn't want to go to a college program and be known? Winning is important to me."

It shows. Leonard had 39 points in midfield her first year and made the All-County Tournament team. This year, she's on the hunt for a county championship. This, for the girl who learned how to handle a lacrosse stick with her left hand just last year. It's something she deemed "one of the most frustrating experiences of my life."

That was part of the deal, though. After doing well in other varsity sports, Leonard "needed a challenge," and gave up playing softball with Jim McGowan's powerhouse team, Pfeffer said. "Lacrosse was a sport she hadn't mastered when she had pretty much done everything else."

Her father phrases it a little differently: "Alyssa has an itch in her belly," he said, and it's one that's been in place since her early youth.

She played with the boys, mostly, she said. She competed in baseball, soccer and street hockey in boys youth leagues.

"She threw, for lack of a better word, like a boy," Brian said. Or better, as the case may be: "It got to the point where the boys would compare themselves to Alyssa," he said.

The transformation came quickly: Leonard went from being "the girl" to "the girl with the cannon arm" - all before finally ascending to the simple elegance of "the shortstop."

Her skills accumulated quickly. The righthander learned how to pitch lefthanded as well and also became a switch hitter. She has "powerhouse legs," her father said, "and she's got great mobility."

In return, Leonard's relationship with her old teammates have stood the test of time. "I was one of them," she said. "Some of those guys are actually my biggest supporters. They're always at my games if they're not playing their own sports."

Count her father in that group: "I'm probably one of the proudest fathers out there," he said. "If I can get to them, I'll go to every single one of her games - even street games. I love watching her play."

The tradition will carry on to Northwestern; Brian already has notions of visiting the suburban Chicago campus in Evanston next spring.

"I'm definitely planning to go," he said. "I can't wait to see her."

Baby pink stick in tow.

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