Commentary

Top ranking brings new challenge to Austin

Updated: May 18, 2009, 11:36 AM ET
By David Auguste | ESPN RISE Magazine

Last year, while most of her friends were driving to school and practice, Kelly Austin was stuck bumming rides to and from St. Stephen's & St. Agnes (Alexandria, Va.).

[+] EnlargeKelly Austin
Ren DittfieldKelly Austin will play college lacrosse for powerhouse Virginia.

Driving just wasn't a priority. She was already on the road, en route to becoming the nation's top lacrosse player.

"Most kids can't wait to turn 16 to get their license," says Saints head coach Kathy Jenkins. "She didn't need to get her license. She was always too busy (with lacrosse)." A year later, Austin is a senior with a license, a sweet ride -- a 2008 Jeep Laredo -- and a new title: the No. 1 recruit in the country by Inside Lacrosse. And she's planning on using all three as she continues down the road to stardom.

"My whole life is lacrosse," says Austin. Her journey won't be without some bumps in the road. The high-scoring attacker knows there is a giant target on her back this year. Her distinction as the best in the nation has yielded some unwanted attention on the field. That much was evident in a season-opening win over Bishop Ireton on March 17.

"They are definitely after me," says Austin, who was still sporting a collection of bruises a week after the opener. "I've experienced girls trying to knock me down. I just have to shake it off. "There's definitely a lot more pressure to stand out and do what I do best."

In the opener, Austin saw plenty of double-teams and was constantly face-guarded, a defensive tactic in which a player is assigned to shadow a scorer for the entire contest. The defender seldom turns her back on the scorer and plays right in her face to limit touches and scoring opportunities. "She's always been one of the players our opponents don't want to score at all," says senior teammate Charlotte Davis. "She handles it pretty well, actually."

If she needs a little advice on how to deal with her stardom, Austin doesn't have to look very far. Both of her parents were accomplished college athletes, while her aunt, Tracy Austin, is a former world No. 1 tennis player who became the youngest US Open champ as a 16-year-old in 1979.

Her father, Jeff, had a brief stint as a professional tennis player before becoming a sports attorney. Her mother, Denise, attended Arizona on a gymnastics scholarship and put out a series of instructional fitness books and videos promoting a healthier lifestyle. Denise was also the star of a successful show on ESPN titled "Getting Fit With Denise Austin."

"I look up to them so much," Austin says of her parents. "I hope to one day be as successful as them." She's well on her way. Last year, Austin led the Saints' ascent to the top of the national rankings, scoring 84 goals and dishing out 19 helpers in guiding St. Stephen's & St. Agnes (26-0) to the Independent School League crown and a state title. The team also finished tied with John Carroll (Md.) for the LaxPower national championship.

Kelly Austin Favorites

  • TV Show: "Friends"
  • Actress: Jennifer Aniston
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  • Athlete: Rafael Nadal

Last May, Austin received the prestigious Heather Leigh Albert Award, given to the top high school player in the country. She was the third Saint to earn that distinction in the past seven years after Kathleen Miller won in 2002 and Jennifer Hauser in '03. "I always grew up admiring all the girls at our school," says Austin. "It's really an honor to get the award."

Austin, who stands a shade over 5-foot-5, continued to roll this spring. She tallied 35 goals through the team's first nine games -- all wins -- and showcased her scoring prowess during a March trip to California, tallying 17 goals in four games.

Thanks to her fast start, any talk of feeling the pressure at the top has been reduced to dirt off her shoulders. "I said to her, 'We'll worry about it when all the pressure gets to you,'" says Jenkins. "It's a challenge, but I think I'm up for it," adds Austin.

You can't blame her for exhibiting some swagger. Austin has been around stars her whole life, so you might say she was destined to become one. She began her varsity career with the Saints' much- heralded lacrosse program as a sophomore on a loaded team and immediately made an impact.

"She's always been good athletically," says Jenkins. "She is aggressive, very hard-working. As she develops in high school, she has learned great game sense." Jenkins is quick to note that Austin is adept at creating space and putting her teammates in good position to score, in addition to flashing a lightning-quick -- and accurate -- shot. That shot was surprisingly off midway through last season, when Austin mysteriously went through a scoring slump. She and Jenkins identified her stick as the cause of the power outage. Austin switched to a Brine Epic stick and regained her touch in the process.

Austin's teammates admire her refined game. "She's a very avid, hard worker," says Davis. "She always knows what to do on attack."

After finishing last year strong and earning oodles of individual accolades, Austin knew she would attract extra attention and began rigorous training in preparation for what she knew would be a grueling and physical season. She ran wind sprints and lifted three times a week during the offseason. Thanks to that work, Austin and her classmates hope to repeat as state champs and cement their legacy at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes.

"It's our senior year and last year to prove we can win," she says.

The next destination on Austin's trek will be a four-year stop at the University of Virginia, where she'll have an opportunity to play as a freshman. The Cavaliers are slated to graduate four attackers at the end of this spring. But before the Laredo pulls into Cavalier country, Austin hopes to repay her teammates for all the lifts to school -- with a ride to another state title.

David Auguste covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.

• ESPN.com NFL editor
• Previously covered recruiting for ESPNHS
• Graduate of Northeastern University