Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference lacrosse is compelling because of the quality of play, school geography and time-tested rivalries.

Seven of the 10 schools are within 15 miles of each other. Their alumni base and students are passionate. Attending games is part of the local sports fabric.

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"On any given Tuesday or Friday, a team can upset or be beaten," said Bob Shriver, who has coached Boys' Latin for 35 years.

But the league doesn't garner the respect it once did. Losses this season to Haverford (Pa.), IMG Academy (Fla.), Gonzaga (D.C.), Georgetown Prep, St. Stephen & St. Agnes, Landon, Bullis, Hill Academy (Canada), Culver Academy (Ind.), Garden City (N.Y.), Sachem, Olentangy (Ohio), Upper Arlington, Good Counsel, Bel Air, Severna Park, and Annapolis illustrate how the country has closed the gap.

The league has never been pushed around like this.

While highly skilled and well coached, MIAA athletes too often aren't big enough, fast enough and strong enough. For decades college coaches could recruit Long Island, Central New York and Baltimore and then go to the beach for the summer. Since 2000, the massive growth of high school programs in the South, Midwest and West Coast has led to a shift.

In the 2000 LaxPower computer rankings, 1,600 high school teams nationally were playing varsity lacrosse and nine MIAA teams finished in the Top 51: Loyola Blakefield (No. 3), Gilman (7), McDonogh (12), Boys' Latin (19), St. Mary's (27), Severn (31), Calvert Hall (33), Friends (41) and Mount Saint Joseph (51).

Ten years later, the number of MIAA schools in the top tier dropped dramatically as growth ballooned to 3,095 varsity teams. The sport nearly doubled in size in a decade and the MIAA's reign came to a halt, with just three ranked schools: St. Paul's (3), Boys' Latin (32) and McDonogh (58).

Last year, Boys' Latin was awarded the mythical national championship. Three other MIAA schools — McDonogh (25), St. Mary's (38) and Calvert Hall (49) — were rated in the Top 50 of 3,596 varsity programs nationwide. Still very good, but not what it once was.

"The game has grown, there are so many good players and teams around the country," Shriver said. "The MIAA's typical very high winning percentage ... has waned."

Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New England prep schools now play quality ball. There are 101 public high schools on Long Island that play a more athletic and physical style. But Long Island talent is spread out, and there is no super league.

Haverford is the top-ranked team in the nation and the Fords are 4-0 against the MIAA. The rest of Haverford's league is 0-7 against the MIAA.

"Top to bottom, team-for-team, I think the MIAA is still the strongest high school lacrosse conference in the country," said Geoff Shannon, recruiting analyst at Inside Lacrosse.

Another similar league, the Western New England conference, has four or five top teams each year: Salisbury, Deerfield, Brunswick, Avon Old Farms, Trinity-Pawling, Hotchkiss and Taft. Many of those schools admit postgraduates, and barely play out-of-conference schedules, making a league-to-league comparison difficult.

"Traveling prep school programs like IMG National and Hill Academy are tough comparisons," Shannon said. "They recruit nationally and internationally, most allow [postgraduates] or admit older Canadian players and the indoor box style is a tricky schematic matchup for MIAAs."

Even as MIAA teams lose, talent in the league is held in high regard. According to Inside Lacrosse, the class of 2015 features eight of the Top 50 seniors in the country: Ryan Conrad (No. 1, Loyola Blakefield), Timmy Kelly (2, Calvert Hall), Andy Matthews (14, Gilman), Patrick Spencer (26, Boys' Latin), A.J. Barretto (31, St. Paul's), Carter Flaig (36, St. Paul's), Jack Halpert (40, Gilman) and Alex McGovern (41, St. Paul's).

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Notre Dame, the No. 1 team in the country, has three MIAA alums starting — Conor Doyle (Gilman), Garrett Epple (Calvert Hall) and Mikey Wynne (St. Paul's).

"The MIAA has always produced top-level talent, players who have tremendous stick skills and lacrosse IQ," ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said. "During the last 10 years, emerging area players across the country have caught up to the MIAA and other traditional hotbeds. These players are often multisport athletes who don't focus only on organized lacrosse all year long. Players from nontraditional areas are asked to play multiple roles on the field which creates a more versatile player."

Chesapeake Bayhawks coach Dave Cottle, formerly at Severn, Loyola Maryland and Maryland, offers an endorsement with an asterisk.

"Skill-wise, the MIAA is still the best league," he said. "Athletically, strength, quickness and speed — you have to choose carefully."

And that's the rub. The kids are slick, but perhaps not as athletic. Only three of the current top 50 scorers in Division I played at MIAA schools: Ryan Brown (No. 19), Deemer Class (45) and Wells Stanwick (47). For recruiters, that's a poor return on investment. Canadian sharp-shooters have replaced the Baltimore sniper. Syracuse has no contributors from the Charm City. Duke has just one. Denver has none.

Colleges can win big without a map of Roland Park.

For all the hype the league receives, there were only two players I saw in Tuesday's Boys' Latin-Gilman game who jumped out as can't miss, top-tier recruits — Lakers goalie Jack Pezzulla and attackman Patrick Spencer.

The Lakers, though, have 18 players on their roster who have committed orally to Division I programs. So, my opinion differs from the college coaches who continue to farm the MIAA like tulip mania.

I believe the league is now being over-recruited, and the early recruiting of eighth and ninth graders is to blame. Baltimore-area kids start at age five and are exposed to better coaching. They have a built-in advantage, a head-start.

When a Baltimore summer club team of ninth graders plays a team from Memphis, Tenn., Dallas or Seattle, they dominate. And the player from the 410 or 443 area code receive scholarship offers. But four or six years later, these athletes look vastly different.

MIAA coaching has always been first class, and hasn't wavered. Schools have legions of assistants who help run practice, mentor and offer individual instruction.

When Loyola Maryland won the national championship in 2012, the team's only MIAA contributor was faceoff man J.P. Dalton.

"Getting a goalie or a face-off man from Long Island or the MIAA was the way to go," Cottle said.

Regardless of where the MIAA sits in the national hierarchy, no league touches it in terms of atmosphere. Large crowds and high stakes make each Friday game special, there are few easy games and many local college coaches attend to scout.

March losses to out-of-town teams are now in the rearview mirror and MIAA backers still claim it's the best league in the country.

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But others are gaining.

Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.

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