March 1, 2015
Down on one knee, the face guard of his gold helmet just inches from the green turf at the Loftus Sports Center green, University of Notre Dame men's lacrosse standout Nick Ossello gets ready to pounce the split-second a referee's whistle pierces a tense silence.
Ossello is at the center of the impending storm, braced for a flurry of stick maneuvers, collisions, rug burns and bruises.
In lacrosse, it's called a face-off.
In reality, it's a lightning strike of furious action to gain possession and start the attack, a moment that can come with a stick whacking the wrist, or an elbow hitting the ribs with jackhammer force.
Actually, Ossello is the storm.
Ossello, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior, unleashes a fury in the face-off that gives the second-ranked Fighting Irish the edge they need to begin their assault.
On Saturday, Notre Dame used a 14-0 run to blast Dartmouth 20-5. Ossello put the Irish in attack-mode by winning eight of his 12 face-offs.
In a game with no place for fear, Ossello brings a fierceness to the Irish attack force.
"He's tough, he's mean ... it helps to be fierce in a face-off," Notre Dame senior midfielder Will Corrigan said of Ossello. "You have to have a tenacity about you to just want the ball and nothing else. Nick has a football background, so he knows how to hit guys and do it legally. He brings a physicality to our team that is necessary at times."
Ossello said he loves face-offs and the chance to get physical.
"A lot of times, face-off guys shy away from contact, whereas I embrace it," Ossello said. "I try to use that to my advantage.
"I compare a face-off to wrestling," Ossello said. "It's a free for all to get the ball. Fortunately, a lot of face-off guys tend to not be as athletic as other players on the field. It's kind of an advantage for me, where I can utilize my athleticism to just kind of chase and turn it into a groundball if I don't win the clamp right away."
Kevin Corrigan, the head coach of the Irish (and Will Corrigan's father), loves the fury and force Ossello brings to a face-off.
"When it's getting mucked up out there, it's nice to have a big athlete like Nick in the middle of it," Corrigan said. "He doesn't shy away from anything."
Ossello gives Notre Dame a unique weapon. On most college lacrosse teams, the player engaged in the face-off is a specialist. As soon as possession is determined, the face-off player sprints off the field and is replaced by a midfielder or defender. Ossello stays on the field and goes on the offensive as a midfielder.
Notre Dame gains an advantage, because Ossello not only can win a face-off, but also trap the face-off specialist and force that player to play defense. That creates a mismatch Ossello and the Irish can exploit.
Kevin Corrigan and the Irish hope Ossello can be a difference-maker when Notre Dame plays at Denver next Saturday. Notre Dame takes a 3-0 record into its showdown against the Pioneers, who were ranked No. 1 last week.
"Nick is such a strong, athletic kid," Corrigan said. "It's funny. If you don't watch him closely, you think he's kind of a bull in a china shop. Three years ago, that's who he was. He's really become a very savvy lacrosse player in a lot of different ways. It's really been fun to watch him grow up as a lacrosse player. He came in as an athlete who played lacrosse. Now, he's a very athletic lacrosse player. That's a significant difference for us."
Ossello, a native of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, is eager to return to his home state for a showcase match.
"This is not just another game for me," Ossello said. "I've been looking forward to this ever since I saw it on the schedule. I'll have friends texting me. My dad will be texting me, like, 'Hey, we need 50 extra tickets.' It's great. I'll have a lot of family and a lot of friends at the game.
"We've had a lot of close games with Denver, overtime games. They beat us last year. We've been going back and forth, so not only is it going to be a great game, but also it will be a good opportunity to put on a good show for the sport of lacrosse in Colorado. Lacrosse is a sport that is still growing in Colorado. I think Denver being a great program is an awesome way to grow the game."
Kevin Corrigan said Ossello sets an important tone in winning face-offs.
"It's important in any game, but against a Denver team that relies on possession, face-offs will be important," Corrigan said. "When you can play make-it, take-it, it's disheartening, on top of being difficult for a team. We've been on both sides of that. When you're not getting any face-offs, it's like playing uphill all day. At some point, it starts to take a team's will away when they don't get the ball and they don't feel like they have an opportunity."
Ossello originally committed to play lacrosse for Maryland. Then he excelled on the football field, leading the Wheat Ridge Farmers to the state championship game.
"I was seriously looking at Air Force and the University of Montana for football," Ossello said. "I de-committed from Maryland, so I could weigh my football options. Once I didn't get the looks I wanted from football and I realized lacrosse would get me the best education, I started putting my name out there again."
Notre Dame became interested in Ossello and recruited him off his football tapes.
"They were like, 'Sure, we can use an athletic kid who was committed to Maryland, so we know he can kind of play lacrosse. Let's give the kid a chance.'" Ossello recalled. "I'll forever be grateful to Coach Corrigan and (assistant) Coach (Gerry) Byrne for giving me that chance. I hope I'm doing well for them."
Ossello credits football with giving him an edge in lacrosse.
"I've always been a person to go out and seek contact instead of shy away from it," Ossello said. "I remember being a little kid and playing baseball. And my dad said, 'I think I've found a game for you. You get to run around a lot and you can hit people with a stick.' I was like, 'Sign me up! That's for me.'
"A lot of times, I've had to restrain myself, because I do get a good amount of penalties for the amount of contact," Ossello said. "But I've been doing a good job of keeping things within the realm of lacrosse and not the realm of football. I love that the two sports let you be so physical."
Ossello must sprint that fine line of being both the calm and the storm on Saturday when the Irish aim to continue carving out what they hope will be a championship course.
And if the Irish are able to hoist a trophy at the end of the season, they can trace that moment to the fierceness Ossello brings to the face-off.
-- Curt Rallo, special correspondent