SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: RYAN NIZOLEKFinding the Sport of Lacrosse Becomes UVa's Gain - by Cayce Troxel
Ryan Nizolek comes from what he likes to call "a football family." His father caught passes from Doug Flutie at Boston College before a stint in the NFL; his younger brother starts under center for the area high school.
After Nizolek won four state championships at starting linebacker for Daniel Hand High School in Bristol, Conn., it seemed only natural that he should follow his father's footsteps and go onto a successful Division I playing career at Virginia.
But in lacrosse?
"Football still has a soft spot in my heart," the Cavalier senior close defenseman acknowledges. "I miss it, but at the same time, I love lacrosse."
Nizolek may love lacrosse now, but even he admits he wasn't so keen on the sport at first. Signed up by his mother to play in the local youth league as a fourth grader, he recalls showing up for the first day of practice and feeling utterly lost out on the field.
"I really didn't know much about it," Nizolek said. "I remember not knowing how to cradle, and I see all these other kids just going at it."
Luckily for Nizolek, the league's supervisor at the time-former UMass lacrosse player James Mackley-knew talent when he saw it, and convinced Nizolek's mother to keep her son in the game despite his lack of experience and initial uncertainty.
"I wasn't too high on lacrosse honestly," admits Nizolek.
He continued to bear with it nonetheless-much to the appeasement of Mackley and his mother-and as his interest in lacrosse grew, so did the maturing Nizolek's game. A hulking 6-2, 205 pounds by high school, he split time between football and lacrosse at the compromise of neither. The same junior year that Nizolek recorded 103 tackles for an undefeated Tigers' football team, he earned first team all-state and Connecticut Super Junior honors as a defenseman on the lacrosse field. Heavily courted by a number of Division I and Division I-AA football programs in the fall of his senior year, including Villanova and his father's alma mater, Boston College, Nizolek would go on to be named a lacrosse All-American in the spring.
"What jumps out at you first is his athletic ability," Virginia head coach Dom Starsia said. "He's a big, strong kid, and he runs really well. He was a football scholarship-caliber athlete."
While Nizolek may have favored football over lacrosse growing up, the prospect of playing the former for four more years didn't seem so appealing. After seeing several of his former Tiger teammates go on to play in college, Nizolek was struck by the grind required to be competitive at the next level.
"I had friends who played football in college, and they'd be taking off in early August to go to camp," commented the laid-back Nizolek. "I liked being home, I liked seeing my friends and I liked having just some time off to myself."
Nizolek also liked the idea of attending a school known for its strong academics, and the prospect of playing lacrosse at Virginia seemed to afford him the best of both worlds. After meeting with Starsia and being impressed by how much of a "stand-up guy" the hard-nosed coach was, Nizolek was sold.
"Seeing this school was awesome, and then having the option to come here-it was a great academic school and just a great place overall," the history major commented. "Obviously, I'm glad I stuck with it, or otherwise I wouldn't be here playing with this team."
Indeed, the decision could not have worked out better for Nizolek-or for the Cavaliers, for that matter. After seeing time in all 16 games his freshman year-mostly playing longstick midfielder-Nizolek broke into Virginia's starting rotation as a close defenseman midway through his sophomore season and hasn't budged since. His 41 ground balls ranked sixth in the ACC in 2008; last year, Nizolek tallied three or more ground balls in six games, including four in Virginia's seven-overtime win against Maryland.
"After my freshman year, I came back that fall playing great lacrosse," Nizolek said. "I think that was definitely a breakout fall for me as far as getting my confidence up and really starting to get comfortable with the system that we play in and the other players. I just took care of business from there."
That's not to say the senior hasn't experienced a few bumps along the way. After having surgery in November 2008 to repair a damaged knee, Nizolek reinjured himself in one Virginia's first games last spring and was forced to play the rest of the season hurt. Starsia gave him fall ball off to rest, however, and it appears as though Nizolek is finally back to full speed for the first time in over a year. Already a preseason All-American and All-ACC selection, a healthy Nizolek is the last thing the Cavaliers' opponents want to face.
"He brings it hard everyday," commented Nizolek's teammate, sophomore attack Steele Stanwick. "He's one of the ‘bash brothers' on the team. He likes to bang around a little bit-a very tough guy. He's someone you definitely want to have on your team and not play up against him."
With Stanwick leading a mostly inexperienced frontline, Nizolek-along with his roommate Ken Clausen and the rest of the defense-will be asked to shoulder more of the load for No. 1 Virginia this season.
"I expect us to be a very good defensive lacrosse team, and a lot of that is going to fall on Ryan's shoulders," Starsia said. "I think he wants that responsibility, and even in just the short time we've been together this spring, he's demonstrated that he's ready to step into a more prominent role for us."
Nizolek's duties don't stop there, however. Now a senior, he's been asked to take on more of a leadership position, as well.
"He's definitely one of the more vocal leaders-even more than that, he leads by example," Stanwick said.
While Nizolek is thriving in his new role, one thing is still missing from his impressive playing resume: a national championship. After losing in the Final Four the last two years-"a gut-wrenching experience," Nizolek said-the senior would like nothing more than to finish out his Cavalier career with a ring before hopefully moving back home and getting a job in the real estate brokerage business.
"It's definitely a different feel knowing this is my last time around and my last shot at leaving with a championship," Nizolek said. "In that respect, there's definitely a lot of pressure. We still haven't gotten what we're here for."