May 6, 2011

Weekender: New Leg Lets Schwartz Fixate (Finally) on Lacrosse

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

A freak high school accident sent Jeff Schwartz on a quest to fix his knee and return to the field for Lynchburg. He is finally getting his payoff this spring.

© Keith Lucas/Sideline Media Prod.

The people in the gym clapped. It was a sort of silent applause. There was no vocal encouragement or whistles accompanying it. The faces held no joy.

They just stared at Jeff Schwartz as he was helped off the basketball court.

Schwartz was playing in a faculty-senior basketball game at Tabor (Mass.) Academy, an annual tradition where, as Schwartz put it, "you get a chance to mess with the faculty before you graduate." After an uncontested lay-up, his left foot hit the floor and his senior lacrosse season came to an end.

The ACL. The LCL. The meniscus. All toast.

Schwartz was primed for a big season, too. He was determined to refine all of the little skills needed to be a dominant faceoff man at the collegiate level when he matriculated at Lynchburg College, while helping his prep team finish near the top of its league. After the swelling subsided, Schwartz called Steve Koudelka, the head coach at Lynchburg, and told him about the knee.

"I remember telling him, 'These things happen. You have to rehab your butt off,'" said Koudelka. "I was more bummed out for him missing his senior year, which I think is a special time."

Schwartz's senior season never happened, and the summer between high school and college – another carefree time – was spent rehabbing in hopes of being ready when he arrived on the Virginia campus. When the fall came, the rookie spent most of his time going against faceoff incumbent Norby King, a senior.

With King leading the way and Schwartz coming in second, Lynchburg won nearly 58 percent of its total faceoffs. He was still getting used to the surgerically repaired knee and the bulky brace, but Schwartz went 91-for-156 (58.3 percent), helping the Hornets finish 16-3, win the ODAC title and play in the NCAA tournament.

The success was tempered by some discomfort with his knee.

"At some point during the season, I'm not really sure when, but I re-tore my ACL, not knowing necessarily that something was wrong," Schwartz said. "As it turned out, I had probably been playing with it my entire freshman year."

Back home in New York, Schwartz visited doctors to see what was wrong. The first one he saw confirmed that his ACL was torn again, and advised him to give up lacrosse. The second doctor found something more troubling. His left tibia was bowed too much, and the solution wasn't pleasant.

It first meant re-breaking the bone, followed by the insertion of an external fixator – a medieval-looking contraption that required Schwartz to turn a knob 45 degrees three times a day to slowly bring his bones back into alignment. With a stoic smile, Schwartz accepted his fate.

"He had the wherewithal at age 19 or 20 to sit there and say, 'I don't want to be dealing with this when I'm 40 or 50,'" Koudelka said. "For as bad as that was, I think he was very calm. I kind of followed his lead with it."

Schwartz spent his sophomore fall at home, dealing with the daily realities of an external fixator. He returned to campus in spring 2009, took some classes and just tried to get used to his new left leg. He filmed a couple of games and watched the Hornets get slaughtered at faceoffs.

"I don't try to remember how bad we were on faceoffs in '09, but we were horrendous," admitted Koudelka, who watched his squad win a paltry 44.6 percent of its draws that year.

"There were times when the faceoff guys would be struggling when I wasn't able to play, and that was frustrating," Schwartz said. "I couldn't do anything about it."

Frustration became a constant companion for Schwartz. Even with his bones healing, there was a second ACL surgery looming – something that couldn't be done until the tibia was strong enough. Another summer of rehab was on the docket, as well as another year away from lacrosse.

Schwartz was finally cleared for game activity midway through the 2010 season. On a miserable day in Hoboken, N.J. – about as close to Schwartz's hometown of New City, N.Y., that Lynchburg would ever get – and the Hornets in control of the game, Koudelka looked over and gave the nod.

"It was basically a monsoon; there was so much rain and it was freezing cold," Schwartz said. "I spent the whole game on the sideline screaming, basically just to keep warm. We played unbelievably well, and he put me out there in the third quarter to take a faceoff."

He bent down into the familiar faceoff position, his knee brandishing a heavy, black brace, and soaked in this opportunity for which he had waited two years.

And immediately picked up a procedure penalty.

"In addition to being freezing, I was nervous and excited," Schwartz said with a laugh. "There were so many factors converging that I don't think there was anyway I wasn't going to get one."

Schwartz played 10 games that season and won 18 of the 31 faceoffs he took, but he was still a shell of his former self. There was no explosiveness, and the speed wasn't there. It boiled down to his inability to trust his knee. It was an entirely mental obstacle, and one he tried to tackle last summer.

He became stronger and worked on every imagineable agility drill. But it wasn't until he returned this last fall to Lynchburg that the full level of confidence returned.

"It had been a while since I had run past anybody with the ball in my stick," Schwartz said. "There was a point in the fall where we were in a scrimmage when I was able to get by a guy and get a shot off. I felt better this fall than I had felt in my entire career. Being in better shape and being stronger, I felt I was as close as possible to being back to normal."

Three years after he joined the Lynchburg team, Schwartz is finally getting his first chance at a normal season. The results: a 66.1 faceoff percentage and a team-high 109 ground balls. He has even scored his first career goals, along with an assist.

"This fall when he came back, we started to see glimpses of it, and then in the spring a couple of games into the year he started to get his speed," Koudelka said. "He's just had a great go here this year."

Led by Schwartz, who is a junior captain, Lynchburg has shaken off a four-game losing streak to win nine consecutive contests. The Hornets play Roanoke in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference championship on Sunday for a bid to the NCAA tournament. After Tuesday's practice in preparation for this most important game of the year, Koudelka sat down the team in the locker room.

The coach pulled out a piece of paper and proceeded to list those players who won conference honors, which would be officially announced the next day. The first player read: Jeff Schwartz, first team All-ODAC, short-stick specialist.

"It's pretty cool to think about getting accolades," Schwartz said. "I never really received any accolades or anything like that before. It was definitely a cool moment."

When his name was read, Schwartz looked around the locker room. Everybody was clapping.

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