May 14, 2015
Nick Ossello, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior midfielder for the University of Notre Dame men's lacrosse team, knows what kind of crowds he wants to run into Saturday when the Fighting Irish travel to Colorado this weekend.
Ossello, who hails from Wheat Ridge, Colorado, is hoping for plenty of family and friends at Notre Dame's Friday afternoon graduation ceremony on the road for the men's lacrosse players.
For Saturday's NCAA Championship quarterfinal game, it's a different crowd Ossello is hoping to see. The Irish (11-2) take on Albany (16-2) on the grass Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver. Face-off is set for 3 p.m. EDT Saturday (1 p.m. in Denver) as the Irish battle for a berth in Championship Weekend.
"I'm going to try and get as many of my wild and obnoxious friends to come out and give us as much of an advantage as they can," Ossello said of the clash against Albany.
Playing quarterfinal action in Denver makes for a hard-hitting homecoming for the bruising Ossello, who has been a punishing force for the No. 1 seed Fighting Irish this season. His experience at Mile High dates back to two Colorado state high school football championship games he played there. (His Wheat Ridge team won in his sophomore season and lost in his senior season.)
"I couldn't be more excited," Ossello said of graduating and playing in NCAA action in Colorado. "The timing of it just worked out perfect."
Ossello has been a key reason the Irish have been ranked No. 1 for much of the season. He brings quickness and overpowering strength to the Irish attack. He's a nightmare match-up. He's a fierce face-off man, and he also can spearhead the attack on offense. He also makes on impact on defense.
This season, Ossello has left Irish opponents battered and beaten.
"I embrace the physicality of the game, probably more than a lot of other people," Ossello said. "I'm sure they're going to be hitting, and I'll be doing as much hitting as I can. Hopefully, the refs let a little bit slide, because I'm sure it's going to be a very physical game. I look forward to the intensity."
Recruited by some Division I programs as a quarterback after a brilliant high school career, Ossello turned to lacrosse collegiately.
"My freshman year, I was literally a football player playing lacrosse,"" Ossello said of the start of his Notre Dame career. "I would just be out there trying to hit people, not playing very good team defense. My stick skills weren't great. I've calmed down a lot since then and developed my stick skills to a point where I feel comfortable shooting and dodging in almost any situation. I'd say I'm a lacrosse player playing lacrosse, but with the tendencies of a football player. It's a nice balance.
"I've definitely calmed down a lot, and that's benefited me. I'm not a defensive midfielder any more. I can actually get the ball in the back of the net, whereas freshman year I was just trying to hit everyone. The lacrosse instinct has taken over from the go-out-and-headhunt instinct that came with me from football."
Ossello's forceful play has vaulted him into all-star status. "Nick has got such great athleticism," Irish head coach Kevin Corrigan said. "He's got a great athletic mindset. He's a competitor and he's a determined kid. He's gone from being a great athlete playing lacrosse to being a great lacrosse player. His decision-making, his ball-handling, his ability to finish plays at both ends of the field ... I think he's one of the best players in the country."
As Ossello puts fight into the Fighting Irish, Corrigan is pleased with the way his team has dealt with being one of the top targets in the nation this season.
"I think we've handled that all year," Corrigan said. "We've been No. 1 probably more than anyone else has been over the course of the season. It's really about keeping your focus day to day and doing the preparation and the work that you need to do in order to be ready to play on Saturdays. Saturdays are the easy part if you do the rest of the stuff right."
Ossello said the Irish thrive on countering tough competition.
"We know that with the target on our back, every team is going to come out swinging," Ossello said. "They're going to try and do what they're good at. A lot of times, other teams will prepare doing the best actions that they know how to do. That allows us to get a good scout and a good read on what they're going to do. With Albany, we can expect them to come out even a little angrier because of what happened last year. We're expecting them to come out swinging right away. It's up to us to not only take the early blows of their energy, but match their intensity and fight back with even more energy."
Notre Dame posted a hard-fought 12-10 opening-round victory against Towson last week. A flurry of four Irish goals in 2:51 ignited a 10-2 Irish run.
"I think we have an ability to make those plays," Corrigan said of a lightning-quick Irish assault. "Lacrosse is a momentum game. You can shift momentum very quickly in this game, especially with a guy like Nick, where you can score out of the faceoff and string together goals in a matter of seconds. That puts a lot of pressure on people. Clearly, our team feeds off that kind of energy."
Albany waged a hard-fought battle against Notre Dame last season in NCAA quarterfinal action at Hofstra.
Notre Dame trailed Albany 12-7 until a stunning Irish rally started at the 8:11 mark. Notre Dame won 14-13 on a Matt Kavanagh game-winner in overtime.
"What made it such a good game was that we went up early on them, and they came charging back," said Irish star Conor Doyle, who scored two goals against Albany last season. "They had a lot of great play-makers. They went up a couple of goals.
"I think the turning point was we starting doing a 10-man ride and put pressure on them. We got a couple of breaks, we got lucky a couple of times and we were able to get back in the game."
Notre Dame has shown remarkable poise in battling back against teams like Towson and North Carolina this season.
"It comes down to practice," Doyle said of Notre Dame's ability to remain composed while waging a furious rally. "You have to give Coach Corrigan the credit. He turns the pressure on in practice. When we get in a game and our backs are to the wall, we all feel like we've been there before. We know what to do."
On Saturday, the Irish will be counting on that experience and toughness to help them earn a berth in NCAA Championship Weekend.