Loyola Maryland women's lacrosse coach Jen Adams first noticed Marlee Paton at a clinic in Melbourne, Australia, when Paton was just 12.
"I remember seeing Marlee there as this tiny little peanut and thinking, 'This kid is going to be something else,'" Adams said.
"You see a player like Marlee playing against women of my age and older and holding their own, and you see her teammates like [former Loyola All-American] Stacey Morlang trusting Marlee to take a shot at the end of the game. I remember thinking, 'I'm going to have to keep an eye on her.'"
Adams, a fellow Aussie who would later play with Paton in the World Cup, was just beginning her coaching career when she first watched Paton. Six years later, she brought Paton to Loyola to begin a stellar four-year run.
The Patriot League Midfielder of the Year, Paton has a resume packed with accolades, including two All-America honors, three All-Big East selections (before the Greyhounds left for the Patriot League) and 2012 Big East Midfielder of the Year. Twice, she helped Loyola to the Big East championship.
This spring, she was second in the Patriot League with 39 goals and third in points with 62 as No. 13 Loyola swept the conference 8-0. The Greyhounds earned the right to host the tournament at Ridley Athletic Complex beginning with Thursday's 5 p.m. semifinal vs. Holy Cross.
The senior is on the verge of becoming the first Loyola player to finish her career with 100 or more goals, assists, ground balls, draw controls and caused turnovers, a rare feat at any level of the game. Paton needs just six assists and 10 draw controls to reach that milestone.
"Marlee has really been the catalyst behind us making that move back to being a nationally prominent team," Adams said as the Greyhounds aim for their fourth straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
Paton's versatility has earned her both Offensive and Defensive Player of the Week honors in the Patriot League this season. In Saturday's 11-6 win over four-time defending conference champion Navy to clinch the regular-season title, Paton didn't score a goal, but she had two assists, four ground balls, four draw controls and four caused turnovers.
"Marlee stands out in terms of all the little things that make a big difference," Navy coach Cindy Timchal said, "from creating turnovers, getting draw controls, running the midfield and having the ability to score and find open players on the offensive end. Defensively, she kind of has the green light to jump out and pressure players and cause them to turn the ball over."
Paton, 22, honed the skills that have led to 170 career goals, 94 assists, 131 ground balls, 90 draw controls and 104 caused turnovers in an Australian club system that is far less rigid than the American system, but in some ways far more nurturing. Games every Sunday are as much social events as athletic contests, but players often play more than one game at more than one age level.
"We don't have the luxury of having set positions," Paton said. "You play everything, because we don't have enough people. I think that really did help me. I had to be good at everything because I couldn't stop at the restraining line."
At 12, she often played different positions in three games on a summer Sunday — Under-13, U-15 and U-17, but she could not see herself coming to the United States to play.
Although her aunt, Margaret Barlow, played in five World Cups, Paton still saw games as fun social outings. Club players practiced Monday nights and met for games Sundays. Her sister Lyndsey, now 26, played. So did her parents, although they didn't pick up the game until their 20s.
Morlang, who lived next door, saw more.
"She had an innate ability to read the game, but she was also fearless and unwilling to give up," Morlang said via email. "This is what I believe has made her not only a good lacrosse player, but a really great one. … There was no doubt that she would be able to not only handle being so far from home but be able to be influential and instrumental in keeping Loyola at the top of its game."
Paton's horizon began to broaden after Morlang persuaded her to try out for the senior national team at 17. She had already played on Australia's U-19 team as a 15-year-old.
"I started thinking about [playing in America] when I was in my senior year of high school, maybe a little before that," Paton said, "but once I started training for the World Cup, I loved how much fitter I was getting and how I got better and better. I didn't have a strong career path that I wanted to follow, so I was like, 'Well, why don't I just go see what happens?'"
She took a year off after high school graduation in November 2009 and arrived at Loyola in September 2010. At first, she experienced a little lacrosse culture shock with the amount of training required.
"I was used to training Monday nights and playing Sundays," she said with a laugh. "Obviously through World Cup, it was more intense, but I wasn't used to playing lacrosse for three or four hours every day. That was something I had to get used to. I was always so tired."
But Paton had an understanding of the rigors of training for high-level competition after working with some of the world's best players, including Adams, to prepare for the 2009 World Cup. Without that experience, she said, she might not have made it through.
"I was 17 and I was training for the World Cup with 28-year-olds to 35-year-olds, and these people were amazing athletes. They wouldn't get tired, and I'm like, 'I'm 17. I should not get tired.' It was kind of a mental barrier and knowing that even when you think you're tired, that you always have more to give. That helped me a lot coming here. I always had it in the back of my mind that if I could get through those training sessions, then I can do it here."
Adams said Paton has a work ethic unmatched since she started coaching the Greyhounds in 2008, and teammate Hannah Schmitt agrees.
"She's always like, 'We've got to work a little harder, we've got to stay after practice, we've got to go before practice,'" Schmitt said. "Usually no one's excited to do that, but she gives off this energy where it kind of gets to be exciting even though no one's there to watch it. She makes you realize you're doing this to make you better."
Paton is a dynamo off the field as well, embracing a lifestyle that values far more than sports. She has a 3.4 GPA and serves on Loyola's Student Athlete Advisory Committee and in the Loyola Leadership Academy as well as participating in food drives and fundraisers. In January, she was one of 36 college semifinalists for the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup, presented annually to one college and one professional athlete who have the most positive influence in the lives of others.
When the lacrosse season ends, Paton will continue her service along with her Greyhounds teammates when they travel to London for a few clinics and games before heading to South Africa.
"We're going to some orphanages and kind of teach lacrosse and help out in any way that we can, which I think is going to be eye-opening for a lot of the girls, myself included," Paton said. "It's always good to give back, and it's kind of nice to finish off my four years with that, just showing how grateful and thankful I am for my experiences here, and it's great to be able to spend it with my teammates and coaches."