February 22, 2012

Ohio State Building Confidence in Second Year Under Venechanos

Buckeyes are 4-0, off to best start in 10 seasons

by Laurel Pfahler | LaxMagazine.com

Alayna Markwordt this season has become Ohio State's all-time leader in goals and points as the Buckeyes have gotten off to a hot February start.
© Ohio State Athletics

Ohio State second-year head coach Alexis Venechanos points to a game in the middle of last season as the beginning of her team's journey to its best start since 2002.

The No. 18 Buckeyes are off to a 4-0 start with the help of momentum built in the second half of last season after an America Lacrosse Conference win at Notre Dame pushed them above .500 in mid-March. They ended up winning an ALC tournament game for the first time in six years, and Venechanos said the players returned in the fall motivated for more success.

That newfound confidence has helped Ohio State earn wins this season over then-No. 6 Stanford, San Diego State, Robert Morris and most recently Louisville.

"At the end of last season we kind of got a taste of what we are capable of doing," Venechanos said. "This being my second year as head coach and with my coaching staff, I think the players really grasped the system we are trying to play toward the second half of last season.

"I know we lost in the ALC [semifinals], but we felt like there was a lot of potential, and I think the players came back in phenomenal shape in the fall and that just led to us being able to get our newcomers involved in our system earlier rather than working on the fitness."

The young Buckeyes have outscored opponents 70-23 thanks to a quick and dynamic offense led by three senior returning starters – attacker and ALC Offensive Player of the Week Alayna Markwordt and midfielders Gabby Capuzzi and Kirsten Donahue.

Markwordt recently became Ohio State's all-time leading goal- and point-scorer with 151 goals and 96 assists (247 points) in her four years. She has 11 goals and 12 assists on the season, while Capuzzi and Donahue each have a team-best 13 goals.

"Alayna garnishes so much attention around her she's been able to feed the ball tremendously and be a lethal scorer when needed," Venechanos said. "She makes the players all around her better. I think we have seven scoring threats on the field and different players have been stepping up at different times."

Markwordt said the offense seems to be clicking better than past years, as the players have grown "more multi-dimensional," she said. Some of that has to do with a comfort level achieved in Year Two under a coaching staff with a history of success.

Venechanos, a former goalkeeper at Maryland, guided Massachusetts to back-to-back NCAA appearances in 2009-10 and was a part of two national championships as an assistant at Northwestern. She is joined on her staff by former Northwestern defender Christy Finch, a four-time national champion, and Amanda Belichick, the daughter of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and an assistant under Venechanos at UMass in 2010.

"Last year was a transition year, getting comfortable with everything, but this year we know what to expect, and we're all on the same page and able to work closer together," Markwordt said.

While the offense is firing on all cylinders, Ohio State still is coming together on defense with just one returning starter in sophomore Tayler Kuzma (10 ground balls, 6 draw controls). Freshmen goalkeepers Tori DeScenza (.550 save percentage) and Caitlin Hester (.583 save percentage) have been solid while sharing time, but Venechanos said as a whole the defense still has some kinks to work out.

"We're still trying to clean some things up defensively," Venechanos said. "Going forward that will be important for us. ... With our experience right now, we are going to continue learning at the game, which is exciting too, but they've been able to step up to that challenge so far."

The Buckeyes have a tough road ahead, playing host to No. 20 Notre Dame on March 4 and a few weeks later opening a challenging conference schedule at home against No. 4 Florida. Before that, though, they meet Brown on Saturday in a doubleheader with a Buckeyes' men's team that also is riding a wave of confidence after knocking off then-No. 5 Denver on Sunday.

Venechanos said her goal upon taking over the program after the 2010 season was to win more conference games, and the Buckeyes got enough of a taste of that last year to create those same expectations for themselves.

"We have very high goals for ourselves," Markwordt said. "We have a strong group of seniors who have been together since freshman year, and getting a powerful recruiting class, we've been able to work together and push each other and put this new energy into having a successful season."

With the Buckeyes growing more comfortable in the system with each passing game, Venechanos is confident they can keep building off what they started last year.

"I'm excited to see them work hard and be able to have some early success," Venechanos said. "It's fantastic but we also know there's still a lot of work to be done."

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