“Whenever you play teams from Long Island or New York, they always complain about getting hit,” Anthony Pavone, a freshman Polar Bear lacrosse player from Ohio, said with a laughing smirk.
Alex Pizarro, another member of the first Ohio Northern lacrosse team, couldn’t deny it. Neither could Peter Hardt, a player from Long Island, NY. Pizarro is from Maryland, but he agrees that the game is played differently in Ohio than it is on the East Coast.
“During the first couple practices, I was thinking, ‘Wow, some of these kids really get dirty,’” Pizarro said. “Because in Maryland, it’s not as physical. It’s more about stick skills and moving the ball.”
For Pavone, Pizarro and Hardt, they will need to adapt to these differences quickly. Ohio Northern will play its first lacrosse game in school history on Saturday afternoon, as Coach Nat St. Laurent leads his team of 35 freshmen, from 13 different states, onto the field for the first time.
“There’s no other roster on campus that has the diversity, geographically, that we have,” St. Laurent said.
There’s also no other team on campus that is comprised entirely of freshmen. And the Polar Bears will be competing in the OAC this season, where they are the only first-year program, and five of the other seven teams in the conference have seniors on their roster.
St. Laurent believes that his team is up to the challenge, however, and that they have already gotten past some of the standard freshman obstacles.
“I think they’ve realized that they don’t have to impress anybody and that they can just be themselves,” St. Laurent said. “I’m a firm believer that we have the right group of guys. They’re learning continuously, and so am I, so it’s been fun.”
The Polar Bears have had two scrimmages leading up to game one, and they won both. They beat Oberlin College, 10-5 and Olivet College, 14-8.
“I think that the guys are starting to realize that, after a little bit of success in our first two scrimmages, the future is pretty bright here,” St. Laurent said.
But more than anything, St. Laurent isn’t focused on wins and losses this season. He’s focused on building a culture. And although the team has no upperclassmen, Hardt believes that a culture of leadership is already developing within the program.
“We don’t have any senior leadership, but the type of leadership that our coaching staff brings really makes up for that,” Hardt said. “As the year has gone on, we’ve seen more [players] become leaders and rise up, and we’ve seen more people come together and buy in.”
“It is an absolute process and you can’t take things for granted,” St. Laurent said of developing a new program. “In the fall, when we brought in 40 freshmen, there was nobody- nobody that was here to say, ‘This is how we do things at Ohio Northern.’ I think that’s been the biggest hurdle for us, but our guys are getting better every single day.”
With a roster made up entirely of freshmen, St. Laurent heavily emphasizes the ‘buy-in’ factor. When talking about ‘buying in,’ the head coach mentioned his decision to live in Ada.
“When we moved here, people are like, ‘You want to live in Findlay, you want to live in Lima, you want to live in bigger places,’” St. Laurent said. “I’ve got three beautiful kids, and thank goodness they all look like their mother, but we really want to be all-in on this community. I love this place. I love the people, I love the students, and that’s something that I value.”
The player buy-in has not only developed on the field so far this season, but also in the classroom as well. The team finished the first semester with a 3.0 team GPA, and also had six student-athletes on the Dean’s List.
Although the team was picked to finish seventh of eight teams in the OAC this spring, they have aspirations of competing at the top of the conference. They will likely be led by attackers Hardt and Pavone, as well as defenders Jackson Pfister and Andrew Fox, whom St. Laurent says is “a Division I athlete playing at the Division III level.” Meanwhile, the goalie position is still up for grabs between Pizarro, Andrew Markel, Bryce Bowman and Tanner Walwrath.
While he believes that setting goals and aspirations is important, St. Laurent is more about the act of doing. And he believes that if his young team can focus on the task at hand, there will be success down the road.
“It’s great to talk, and to dream and all that stuff, but actually doing it is very important,” St. Laurent said. “I think they have the opportunity to be very good and put something really nice together, and in four years, we could have something really special here.”
The Polar Bears’ first game will be tomorrow at 1 p.m., when they will host Franciscan University at Dial-Roberson Stadium.