Lauren Fraysse is having fun working with the Hernando team, but she also is intent on making field goals and gaining her teammates' respect.
Number 9 was just another pint-sized kicker-type on this hot day of spring football practice. As Hernando High's offensive and defensive aspirants slogged through line drills, No. 9 and another equally diminutive kicker took turns thumping footballs toward the goal post 30 yards away.
Then a coach's whistle beckoned the junior varsity from an adjacent field and allowed the players a brief moment to shed helmets in the sweltering afternoon sun. Only then did No. 9 become different, as a long mane of brown hair spilled from the purple helmet and over shoulder pads.
Lauren Fraysse could make history as the first female to play in Hernando's 111-year history, but right now she's more concerned with making field goals, gaining respectful teammates and having fun.
"I just want to play football and have fun in my senior year," she said. "I know if I make the team I'll probably be a backup. But I want to start eventually.
"I didn't think I'd like this, but I love it."
Fraysse, a rising senior, seemingly had established her athletic presence at Hernando High. A first-team All-Hernando/Citrus midfielder and 17-goal scorer, she is arguably the best player returning on the girls soccer team. One day a few weeks ago, however, a chat with her father, Patrick, changed all that.
"My dad was trying to talk me into doing it," she said of trying out as a kicker. "I don't know what was going through his mind. But I thought it was cool, and a lot of guys on the football team wanted me to because I am friends with them, so I tried it."
The whole experience was a first for Hernando coach Bill Browning too. He had never had a girl approach him about trying out. He didn't know quite what to do or expect, so he has tried, as much as possible, to treat her like any other player.
Gender is one thing. Her 5-foot-4, 127-pound frame is another.
"We've obviously brought her along carefully contact-wise," he said. "She's an outstanding female athlete and she is doing everything the boys are doing. In contact situations _ and this is not to discriminate against her _ but as a prudent and responsible adult I'm not going to let Dee Brown hit her."
A hit he cannot control could come some day, however, and Browning said Fraysse needs to be prepared for it.
"If she gets in a game that may happen, and she realizes that, so I'm going to have to put her in some live situations," Browning said. "If she were to have to kick in a game, I would not want her to have to go in there without having that type of experience."
Fraysse brought a certain toughness with her, and has survived so far. Not every player was willing to possibly share a roster with a female, and Fraysse said she tried to address that problem quietly.
"Being the only girl and listening to the guys talk is tough sometimes," she said. "Some are really for it and love it, and some see if they can get under my skin. But as I told all of them, they're little boys and I can handle it."
Acceptance began growing with the knots on her forearms.
"I'm not afraid of getting hurt," she said. "I've already split my helmet, and I have some nice welts on my arms from contact drills when a couple of people got me. They were sorry at first, but then they realized when I laid some JV kid on his butt I was okay. I got a lot more respect after that."
Fraysse seems to have swayed a key part of the Leopards' senior leadership, Dee Brown.
"She's all right," he said. "She can kick too. She'll be all right once she gets used to the pads."
Browning said Fraysse has kicked the ball well, but she still has much to prove before making the team. As a senior, she would not be eligible for the junior varsity squad.
"She's done a good job, but we've not seen her in a live situation yet," he said. "So I do not know if that will change.
"I've seen kickers that can kick, and when they have people rushing them, they do not quite have the knack for it. It's the same thing with some other positions: wide receivers catching or quarterbacks throwing."
Fraysse also has fellow soccer player Chase Copeland and former JV kicker Mike Kennedy competing with her.
Fraysse said in some ways she prefers playing on a team with all boys.
"It's cool being on the team with the guys," she said. "The guys are a lot more protective, they help me out a lot more (than girls) and they're always there for me. That's the only reason I want to play. If they were a bunch of jerks, I'd want to quit."