When Arbutus resident Brooke Ripley arrived at St. Paul's School for Girls as a freshman in 2011, she had no idea of the direction she was headed athletically.
Having played softball and basketball in the Arbutus recreation programs, she decided to try out for the field hockey team at the all-girls private school.
She made the varsity field hockey team as a goalie that year, even though she had never played the sport before.
She thought she would play softball that spring. Then she discovered the sport of rowing.
It has taken her to the University of Tennessee on a scholarship.
"I still can't believe it. My freshman year I could never imagine I would be going to college to row," said Ripley, 17, whose scholarship pays more than 65 percent of her college costs each semester. "It's just amazing what can happen in four years."
She was awarded another $1,000 this summer as the top scholarship award winner by the Arbutus Business and Professional Association.
Ripley has been active in the community — as an altar server at Ascension Church, lifeguard at Wynnewood Pool where her father, Scott, is manager of the pool. She also volunteers with the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department and has also worked at the annual Arbutus Arts Festival.
That work ethic has been evident in rowing, helping her rise from a novice as a freshman to an accomplished athlete who received 28 athletic scholarship offers.
"She is just a highly motivated kid," said Judd Anderson, who coached Ripley at St. Paul's as a freshman and continued to coach her with Baltimore Youth Rowing at the Baltimore Rowing Club after the school dropped its rowing program following her freshman year.
Her transition to an elite rower started during her sophomore year and it got stronger as she became stronger by working out with personal trainers at Power Train in Columbia as a junior.
"She started running and trained hard on her own," said Anderson, who started the programs at the all-girls school and the neighboring all-boys St. Paul's School in 1999.
"I've been with the sport too long not to say the really great ones rise because they catch this fire in the belly, and she's got the fire in the belly," Anderson said.
When Ridley first started rowing, she did it with trepidation.
"The first few weeks were on land conditioning, and it was a little rough at first. I was kind of nervous about it because I thought, 'Is this all rowing was?' And then I got on the water and my mindset completely changed," she said. "It's just the feeling I get on the water is …I can't even explain it. And that's how I fell in love with rowing."
She learned to row on the Patapsco River at Middle Branch Park, but actually, it was on land where she piqued the interest of most of the top rowing college coaches in the country.
One of the most scrutinized tests for potential rowers is the ergometer test, which produces an erg score, calculated on a rowing machine on land.
"It's how fast you can row 2,000 meters," Ripley said. "Typically, it takes seven to eight minutes for a high school athlete. If you get under 7:30, that is when you start to get college interest."
During her junior year, Ridley cut 23 seconds off her erg score and set a personal best of 7:26.
"When I broke 7:30 my junior year, that's when I started getting a lot of college interest," she said.
During the winter of her junior year, at the 2014 MidAtlantic Erg Sprints Under-16 Openweight 1500M, she had the lowest erg time among 68 competitors.
"She won the race and college coaches were there watching the girls row," said her dad. "That put her up there."
Ripley, a football and baseball coach and assistant athletic director at St. Paul's School, whose campus adjoins that of the St. Paul's School for Girls in Brooklandville, is familiar with the recruiting process for football players. But he never expected the college programs' pursuit of his daughter to be so stressful.
"She finally got to the point where she was in the upper echelon (time-wise) of girls being recruited in the country and right away she had 28 scholarship offers," said Ripley, a 1987 Cardinal Gibbons High School graduate who coached the 2001 Crusader football team to a conference title.
Ripley took official visits to the universities of Louisville, Alabama, Tennessee and Iowa.
"She would come home and a couple times she was an emotional wreck," her dad said. "She was in tears, 'Do I go to Alabama or do I go to Tennessee?'"
She chose Tennessee.
"It was just the overall feeling I got," she said. "It was tremendous, compared to the other colleges that I visited. I knew if I went to Tennessee, they would be taking care of me as both an athlete and a student."
While rowing is a spring sport, the team competes in the fall on the Tennessee River and she was scheduled to start practicing with the Volunteers on Aug. 17.
Before leaving for Knoxville, Ripley shared her concerns.
"I'm not nervous about college, except missing my family and just leaving that all behind and living on my own, that's what I'm most concerned about," she said, referring to her dad, mother Marybeth, sister McKenzie, a sophomore at St. Paul's School for Girls, and her Golden Retriever, Hannah.
"If I'm stressed out, I will go on the water," she said. "Going on the water is like a way to relax and not think about things for that hour. I feel like it also really helps me to become disciplined," she said.
That discipline extends to the classroom, where Ripley seemed to also get stronger once she began rowing. In her application for the Arbutus Business and Professional Association scholarship, she told of how she struggled in private school as a freshman and made the Honor Roll as a senior.
This summer, Ripley practiced every weekday, starting at 7:30 a.m. After rowing on the river, she spent another 90 minutes working out at Power Train in Columbia.
Anderson recognized the potential and drive and gave her an opportunity to compete at the Baltimore Rowing Club.
"All we try to do is give kids a really positive supportive culture where they can see that all the people rising around them are just like them and they can rise too," Anderson said. "She saw that and started pulling numbers and started working out, and there is no one that wants to improve more than Brooke does. That's why she became such a huge Division I recruit."
Anderson also praised her character.
"At the high school level, she stands out. She is rare," Anderson said. "She worked hard. She took advantage of the opportunities, and that's what is cool about Brooke. And she is just like the sweetest kid on the planet. When you combine a sweet kid with tremendous fire, that is just great."
While most of her rowing has been on eight- or four-person boats, Ridley has done singles and doubles as well.
Adam DeStefano coached her during the summer in singles and saw her adjust.
"Her form in a single improved greatly," he said. "She had a chance to row in some of the bigger and faster boats we have, and she managed to do that quite well. I think it's awesome what she was able to do."
Ridley will study veterinarian science at Tennessee and hopes to become a veterinarian. She also has goals as a rower.
"I definitely want to make the top varsity boat, and I definitely want to get stronger and fitter and faster," she said. "I'm looking to lower my 2K time under seven minutes, not this year possibly, but by the time I get out of college so that I can potentially make the [under-23] national team."
Those are lofty goals for an athlete who came into high school not sure what sports she wanted to play. .
Latest Baltimore County
"Rowing has been such a big part of my life. I love doing it all year round," she said.