Down here on the other side of the Cross Bay Bridge, they say you can tell a Rockaway girl by the way she walks, especially the ballplayers. Clare Droesch, 17, of Beach 134th Street, her name spelled without the i like County Clare, Republic of Ireland, is no different. Generally regarded as the best girl basketball player in New York City, and one of the greatest scorers ever to come out of this roundball hotbed by the sea, Clare Droesch walks like a Rockaway girl.
You can see it even 100 feet away, across the fog-bound expanse of sand. That deliberate, almost sulky stiff-legged gait. The clipped steps are nothing like the quick-foot broadside Clare uses to propel her five-foot-eleven, 175-pound body off a pick. But still, it's punky, plenty hard-nose. Her shortish, dirty-blonde hair is tied back in what looks more like a samurai topknot than like a ponytail. Clare's walk is aloof, unassailable. An athlete's walk.
Like most of the other Rockaway girls from St. Francis De Sales parish, growing up, Clare spent her summers here on the beach, just hanging out. But then the weathermen would begin bleating about tropical depressions and worse, the skies grew dark, and the sloppy Rockaway surf began to swell. Clare would come running down 134th Street with her Challenger board, past the grammar school, the Jewish nursing home, and the upside-down end sign that marks the place where the asphalt stops.
"It was something to do." Clare shrugs in her offhand way, those clear blue ironic eyes giving playful lie to her teen insouciance. Then she laughs, thinking about the charge of catching the crest of even a Rockaway wave, and how, even for a moment, it was like being in Hawaii.
"Yeah," Clare amends, "it was something to do."
A junior at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, Queens, Clare is now one of the most sought-after high-school basketball players in the country. With hundreds of letters from colleges -- "The Gators of Florida," "The Lobos of New Mexico," say the return addresses, complete with full-color depiction of the animal mascot -- arriving in her mailbox every week, Clare doesn't have much time for surfing and boogie-boarding. She's often called the Larry Bird of the girls' game because of her gritty full package of court skills. Heady and wholly intuitive at the same time, from the top of the key, Clare's an equal threat to throw a bullet no-look pass, pull up for a 25-foot jumper, or steam toward the basket with near rim-rattling fury.
"Rockaway girls play really free. Open. Not robots. They show off, but there's never that sort of brutishness you get from the boys' game."
This coming July is Clare's official "evaluation period." Which means, in the oft-arcane convolutions of NCAA dictates, the period when college coaches and their recruiter minions will be able to watch Clare play and legally approach her about enhancing their basketball programs.
It is a serious business. Barely 25 years removed from days of six on a side (three players confined to defense, three for offense, and no one allowed to cross midcourt -- it was considered unladylike to get overheated running end to end), women's basketball is among the fastest-growing "revenue streams" in collegiate sports. With Title IX (which sharply increased the number of athletic scholarships for women), schools like Connecticut and Tennessee drawing 15,000 fans a game, and the success of the WNBA -- Chamique Holdsclaw, Clare's illustrious predecessor at Christ the King, just got a million-dollar shoe contract to go with her $300,000 salary -- the future prospects are suddenly quite expansive for a Rockaway girl who's hellacious on the break.
Consequently, with the walls of her prim, exceedingly tidy basement bedroom covered with photos of ballplayers (Kobe Bryant and Jennifer Azzi are favorites) and dozens of trophies arrayed on the shelf, Clare isn't thinking of becoming the "secretary, mom with a lot of kids, or barmaid" -- things many Rockaway girls, even those with moves, used to wind up being. "I don't put any of that down. None of it," Clare says with her usual diffidence. She is nothing if not regular. "It's just, that is not me. Not now."
The tomboy has been redefined. In Clare's case, it's not even an issue. Every morning, like all the other good Catholic girls at Christ the King, Clare puts on her skirt and tights, but no one snickers when she ditches that stuff in her locker and spends the rest of the day in nylon tear-aways. When you are as good as Clare Droesch -- noted scout Joe Smith says she's already got "most of the offensive skills of an all-timer like Carol Blazejowski" -- you are no longer simply "a girl who can play." You are, as Omar Cook, the star guard of the Christ the King boys' team, says, "a player . . . damn, Clare is a player."
Clare doesn't surf much these days, but she still comes to the beach. "With everything going on, it's good to just think, get it straight in my mind," she says. On this particular morning, there is a bunch to contemplate. In a few hours, Clare's team, the Christ the King Lady Royals, will meet Brooklyn's Bishop Kearney to play for first place in the Catholic High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) Brooklyn-Queens division.