October 25, 2012

30 in 30: Is Ohio the Next NCAA Hotbed?

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com

For two more weeks we'll all hear about how Ohio is a swing state. In four years, when the next presidential election rolls around, we might be calling it a lacrosse state.

When new programs Hiram, Findlay and Walsh faced off this weekend for fall ball women's scrimmages, it was evidence of a larger trend: Ohio is a growing hotbed of NCAA lacrosse. But the Buckeye State doesn't even sanction high school lacrosse.

What's making it such a thriving spot? At Division III Hiram there are plenty of factors.

For one, Hiram sits in Northeast Ohio, an area originally claimed by Connecticut as its Western Reserve. So, if we're going by colonial claims, it's connected to the lacrosse-playing world. And even acknowledging modern borders, Hiram's position puts it in a prime recruiting spot, with easy trips to Western Pennsylvania, Upstate New York and the Midwest.

The coach, too, brings East Coast experience to the new program. Erika Blozie starred at Eastern Connecticut, and coached at Bowdoin and Stevenson, programs with entrenched lacrosse traditions.

Hiram is one of two brand new programs, De Pauw is the other, starting up in Division III's competitive midwestern-based North Coast Athletic Conference. In 2012, NCAC champion Denison advanced to the NCAA second round and in 2010 the NCAC sent two teams to the NCAAs. The abundance of young programs in the area will give Hiram non-league games against similar competition before hitting that tough NCAC schedule.

So lacrosse legitimacy should follow. But before you spring, you fall. The past month wasn't perfect for the Terriers, but when they open play on their upgraded turf field in March, Hiram will be better off because of its non-traditional season.

"It was the first time we've played together," Blozie said. "There were definitely some growing pains but I think it was a successful fall season. We were able to compete."

What happens when the fall season is the first season? You start at the beginning.

"We really tried to focus on building our basics," Blozie said. "Going back to fundamentals. Shooting, stick-work."

The back-to-basics approach was also necessary because Hiram didn't have the numbers to work on larger concepts. The Terriers have spent most of the fall practicing without a full squad because some players double as swimmers or soccer players. Another indication of a good situation at Hiram.

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Blozie was hired last September and had a year to recruit. So while the Terriers do have several older players, already on-campus athletes and walk-ons without lacrosse experience, the freshman class was recruited specifically for lacrosse.

That puts Hiram in a position not always familiar to first-year programs. While it has a solid core of freshmen with lacrosse experience, the roster is balanced by several older players who have something those freshmen do not: college experience.

"Things get a little stressful when you have so many freshmen," Blozie said. "When classes get overwhelming [older players] can say 'It's normal. It's an adjustment.' Just to give them someone who's gone through the college experience."

That includes captains senior Lacey Zerner and sophomore Jocelyn Schmidt, who both hail from Ohio.

The building of that upper class foundation began last spring with intramurals.

"We used it very much as a teaching tool," Blozie said. "To get the rust off and as an introduction to lacrosse before starting our non-traditional season."

That didn't mean the non-traditional season would be rust-free. The core of the team had never played together. But over the past five weeks progress was made.

"I did see a good amount of change," Blozie said. "It took a while to establish what drills we would be doing, what style of play we expected. They're not only all new, but from different regions."

The roster currently lists players from Ohio, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"I'm excited to watch how our team comes together," Blozie said. "It started off as individual players, some not even lacrosse players."

It all came together for the first time this past weekend as 13 players headed to Walsh University to take on Findlay and Walsh, which are both Division II programs. The on-field results weren't perfect. But to paraphrase Batman's father: the reason we play the fall is to learn to get back up.

"There was definitely a feeling of accomplishment when we came home," Blozie said. "We made mistakes but we had our first ground ball, our first draw control, first goal scored, first goal scored on us. It's a year of firsts."

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