October 17, 2012

30 in 30: Can Ohio State Keep Trending Up?

by Clare Lochary | LaxMagazine.com

Ohio State's new look on attack will be offset by its young but experienced defense, including defenders Heather Gravinese.
© Bill Danielewski

Ohio State made an East Coast fall ball swing last weekend that included games versus Denver, Harvard, Towson, LaSalle, Stanford, Georgetown and Virginia. This weekend, they'll host Marquette, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, and Duquesne. Oh, and they picked up games against Midwest rivals Notre Dame and Northwestern back on Sept. 29.

With 12 freshmen on the roster and an offensive unit gutted by graduation, coach Alexis Venechanos needed the Buckeyes to have an extensive fall ball schedule against a lot of different teams that threw a lot of different looks at them.

"Our freshmen got to play against that high-pressure intensity. There were six new faces on attack every time down there. We played about three lines of midfielders, with four to five freshmen in all the time," said Venechanos, who is in her third year as Ohio State's coach.

The task of leading and organizing all those fresh faces, especially on attack, falls to sophomore Jackie Cifarelli. Cifarelli was second on the team in points (58) last season after senior Alayna Markwordt (90). Markwordt graduated as the Buckeyes' all-time career goals (181) and points (314) leader, and second all-time in assists (133). The loss of the four-year starter, along with fellow tri-captains Gabby Capuzzi and Kirsten Donahue, means that 53 percent of Ohio State's 2012 goals are gone.

Cifarelli, who was primarily a feeder, is expected to go to goal more as the Buckeyes' offense evolves in the post-Markwordt era. She'll have support from Cara Facchina (17g, 11a) and Katie Chase. Chase, a junior, has endured a series of nagging injuries that kept her from being a full contributor in years past, but she is now healthy and fit. Chase has the potential to become of the team's best finishers, and is strong on off the circle on draws too.

There is also a smattering of Canadian players, such as midfielder Cian Dabrowski and attacker Casey Lyons, who've found their way to Columbus. (Venechanos is the head coach of the Canadian senior team, although both Dabrowski and Lyons were recruited before she got that position.)

"They're awesome. I love feeding to them. Their stick skills! They catch everything. I can't even believe it," Cifarelli said.

The new look on attack will be offset by its young but experienced defense. Goalie Tori DeScenza started every game of her freshman year, and defenders Heather Gravinese (26 GB, 15 CT) and Tayler Kuzma (35 GB, 16 CT) were major contributors. All three are sophomores.

"Kuzma is tremendous off ball. She looks like she's not working as hard, because she's so smart off the ball," Venechanos said.

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Cifarelli has found her teammates to be an excellent resource, too. When she needs to figure out how to beat a particular defense, Gravinese or Kuzma will stay after practice to give her the scouting report on the best way to do it.

"I can't even explain how great they are. They worked so hard and they helped so much. They give great advice and push me to do better," Cifarelli said.

The Buckeyes had a modest 11-6 record last season, but there were flashes of promise. They came within a goal of beating Northwestern during the regular season, and used a stall to come within a goal of beating Florida in Gainesville in the ALC semifinal. Ohio State hasn't been to the tournament since its back-to-back trips in 2002 and 2003. With the expanded field of 26 in 2013, it feels like a possibility, even with the loss of Markwordt, Capuzzi and Donohue.

"We were so close last year. At first, it felt like we lost our whole team, but we realized we only lost three starters," Cifarelli said. "Our defense returns, our goalie returns, and great freshmen midfielders came in. So it feels the same."


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