Growing up in central Ohio and graduating from St. Charles High School in Columbus in 2003, burgeoning lacrosse player Eric O’Brien just didn’t have a lot of opportunities to be exposed to high-level lacrosse.
There was no professional team in the area, leaving the Ohio State program as the only game in town. Participation at the high school level was scattershot – the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington boasted a powerful team but there were only around 40 boys programs in the state – and trying to earn a college scholarship offer wasn’t the easiest thing to do.
“It was very limited,” O’Brien, who eventually went to OSU, told BSB last summer. “We had to go to the East Coast to get recruited. We could not get recruited here. It was literally, I went to one camp and got recruited.
“Now kids are going on travel teams, going to three camps, five camps, six camps. We’re having tournaments here. We have (the) Max Elite (camp in Upper Arlington), we have all the big names. It’s great.”
Ohio State senior Kevin Mack of Dublin, located about 15 minutes northwest of Columbus, is seeing similar growth. Mack had more opportunities to be exposed to the sport growing up than O'Brien, but it still wasn’t quite a big deal in his community.
Now, when he makes the trip home from the OSU campus, he sees the youngsters in his neighborhood playing with sticks and goals just as much as they do with baseball bats and pigskins.
"I started when I was in sixth grade and that was considered early for my time,” Mack said. “I didn't even know about lacrosse until I was in fifth grade and I watched my older brother play. Nowadays I have neighbors that are starting in kindergarten, and that's a normal thing now.
“It's kind of like T-Ball, baseball and soccer, those games you play at a young age. Lacrosse is starting to become one of those sports and kids are starting to play it. The sport is booming and it's fun to watch."
Mack is one of 10 Ohioans on the roster for Ohio State, which has seen its program ride a similar wave of growth as the sport has continued to catch on in the Buckeye State. The Buckeyes, the No. 3 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament, are bearing the benefit, and they can advance to the national semifinals for the first time with a victory Saturday against unseeded Cornell in College Park, Md.
Last weekend’s tournament-opening, 16-6 drubbing of visiting Towson was just the second NCAA tourney win in program history and first postseason game at home, and the Buckeyes’ success is just another sign of how deep the sport is setting down roots in Ohio.
Though lacrosse is not sanctioned by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, the Ohio High School Lacrosse Association boasts 101 varsity teams in all corners of the state and an additional 27 club squads.
Then there’s the Ohio Machine, a professional team that is in its second year. Located in Delaware, about 20 miles north of Columbus, the Machine has numerous former Ohio State players on its roster – including O’Brien – and draws thousands of fans for its home games. Members of the team, including former Buckeyes O’Brien, Greg Bice and Stefan Schroder, have taken up coaching in the area and are part of the boom.
“It’s awesome,” said Bice, who finished his OSU career in 2004 as a two-time All-American. “Obviously, I’m a Buckeye through and through. I bleed scarlet and gray, and to be able to play with some of my former teammates is a huge blessing. To be able to play in front of people that I was playing in front of years ago and to be able to see them again and continue to build those relationships is fantastic.”
The growth is just as evident with the Ohio State program. Though lacrosse is still not on par in Ohio or the nation – except in some places on the East Coast like Baltimore, where the sport is covered with a religious-like fervency by the local media – with college sports like football or basketball, crowds are coming out to watch the Buckeyes.
The interest has been magnified by Ohio State’s “Showdown in the ’Shoe," held before each April’s spring football game from 2008-12. Ohio State set an NCAA on-campus record with 31,078 fans in the stands when the counting stopped in 2010, and the event became an annual part of the spring game before this year's contest was moved to Cincinnati because of repairs in Ohio Stadium.
This past weekend, 2,358 fans came out to the Horseshoe to watch the East Coast Athletic Conference champion Buckeyes down Towson, a total that was on par with attendance in traditional lacrosse hotbeds like Syracuse and Maryland and above the totals at Duke and North Carolina.
“We were right there in the top third of attendance for the first round,” Ohio State head coach Nick Myers said. “When you look at areas that are supposed hotbeds like Duke, Carolina, Maryland and Syracuse, we were right there and even had more than some of those areas.
“I think that’s a great sign. We’ve had a lot of good feedback. I think time will tell. It’s certainly a positive, more long-term in a sense that people are walking away knowing that this is brand like so many sports at Ohio state that’s competing for championships.”
At the moment, Ohio State’s roster is an amalgamation of players from across the United States and Canada. Senior attack star Logan Schuss and second-leading scorer Jesse King are from British Columbia, veteran defender Joe Meurer and goalie Greg Dutton hail from the Baltimore area and senior leader Dominique Alexander is a native of New York.
But the roster stretches as far as Atlanta, where top winger Darius Bowling was recruited from. Then there’s the Ohio contingent highlighted by Mack – a starting defensive midfielder – and senior attacker Nick Liddil of Hilliard, who scored vs. Towson.
As the sport continues to grow in the Midwest and the Buckeye State, the potential exists that the Ohio State program will have more Ohioans to choose from, though Myers doesn’t want to lose the combination of styles that makes the Buckeyes unique.
“The growth has been impressive,” Myers said. “You look back, I’ve been here 10 years. The number of programs in Central Ohio, Cincinnati and Cleveland has really exploded. Our camps have really taken off, just the amount of young men that want to get involved in the game. There are a lot of people in this area that it’s really impacted.
“It’s a game that’s grown across the United States and Canada, but certainly here in the Midwest. It’s exciting. To host an NCAA tournament game has been a goal of ours since we arrived. Not only to make the NCAA tournament but to bring it to Columbus. That was a groundbreaking moment for this program and certainly Ohio lacrosse.”
That is exactly the kind of thing someone like Meurer wants to create. Having come to Columbus from perhaps the most intense lacrosse hotbed in the nation, he sees the sport and Ohio State lacrosse growing at the same time, in part because of the Buckeyes’ success.
“It was definitely one of my goals to walk out of here knowing that we had accomplished setting up this program as one of the top tiers,” the junior said. “We want lacrosse to be one of the sports you see on ‘SportsCenter.’ It’s definitely a refreshing thing to see.”
No. 3 Ohio State vs. Cornell
Saturday, May 18
The teams enter this NCAA quarterfinal with similar résumés. The Buckeyes and Big Red have posted identical 13-3 records and have stats that make it seem like they’re the same team.
Both squads have one of the best attackers in the country – OSU’s Schuss is 10th in the nation with 43 goals while Cornell’s Steve Mock is second with 52 – but also win a ton of faceoffs, play excellent defense and dominate the second half.
The Big Red – who upset No. 6 Maryland by a 16-8 score in the first round in College Park – also have Rob Pannell, whose 5.4 points per game (87 overall) rate third in the nation.
Therefore, Myers knows the Buckeyes have a challenge on their hands if they are to eliminate Cornell much like they did in the opening round of the 2008 tournament.
“They are a very well-coached team,” Myers said. “When you put on the film and watch this Cornell team, you’re immediately impressed with how they get the ball off the ground. They’re a great groundball team. Faceoffs are excellent, and then the obvious.
“They have the best player in the game right now in Rob Pannell, a big name and a guy that has a lot of attention for a good reason. He’s outstanding. He does a lot of things to put pressure on your defense. And on the other end of the field, they have a great defensive scheme.”