When the Buckeyes take to the turf for the "Showdown in the Shoe" to face No. 3 Notre Dame in venerable Ohio Stadium before the football team's annual spring game, they will become the only team other than the gridders to play in the historic venue this season.
The lacrosse game at 11 a.m. will be broadcast statewide on the Ohio News Network and on the Internet at OhioStateBuckeyes.com, and with sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s projected, one would have to think that last year's attendance of 29,601 in rainy conditions should be topped.
"This is it," senior Scott Matthews said. "It's a big game for us and it's a big game for the sport of lacrosse, especially in Ohio. We hope to come out and put on a show and grow lacrosse. That would be a great thing."
The Buckeye program had its first chance to do so last season. Ohio State played Great Western Lacrosse League foe Denver before the spring game in an effort to break the national lacrosse attendance record, eventually setting the on-campus and national regular-season mark.
The Buckeyes drilled the Pioneers by a 20-13 score in that event that featured around 50,000 people in the stands by the time the game concluded. The win helped Ohio State capture a share of the GWLL regular-season title on the way to an NCAA tournament appearance and first-ever postseason victory.
"Last year was the best experience of my life," senior Doug Ruhnke said.
Fans took notice last season, cheering the Buckeye goals that came early and often, mostly from current senior Joel Dalgarno, who scored nine times.
"After the game we heard a ton of stuff," Matthews said. "Later in that week we heard from tons of people who were at that game, people you wouldn't even expect would be out there watching it. It was great to see."
The popularity of the game mirrors the growth of the sport in the state of Ohio. High school programs are popping up across the state, and the quality of the play in the Buckeye State has started to catch up to that in places such as the sport hotbeds of western Canada and the United States east coast.
First-year head coach Nick Myers said that the increased popularity has been shown in attendance numbers both at OSU games and camps. In addition, Ohio State put in a bid to host the NCAA final four – a weekend event that often fills NFL stadiums in places like Baltimore and Philadelphia – in the future, though it was declined.
"Ohio is not really considered a hotbed, but it's one that's really developing," Myers said. "There are some great players coming out of the state of Ohio and the Midwest in general every year. When you think about 60, 70, potentially 80 or 90,000 people getting exposed to a game that is relatively new to the area still in some regards, it's unique and very special. It's an opportunity that we're certainly excited about."
Ohio State continued development of a winning program in the fast-paced sport would help, and this year's game is more geared toward supporting the program than setting an attendance record. Though schools like Syracuse and Johns Hopkins continue to dominate the sport, OSU has made its mark. The Buckeyes made tournament appearances in 2003 and '04 and won an opening-round game last year against Cornell, a game in which goaltender Stefan Schroder scored to make ESPN's "SportsCenter."
This year, OSU is 7-6 but 3-1 in the GWLL, and a win against the Fighting Irish would give the Buckeyes a share of the league regular-season crown again. Dalgarno leads the team with 29 goals and 22 assists for 51 points, while Jeff Ryan has chipped in 25 goals and Mario Ventiquattro has 18.
The Fighting Irish provide a tall task, entering at 12-0 as the last undefeated team in the nation. The team's goals-against mark of 6.08 per game is the best in the nation, and goaltender Scott Rodgers stops 66.5 percent of shots. Up front, Ryan Hoff is the man in the middle with 23 goals, while sniper Grant Krebs has 24 goals to lead the team.
"They have a very dynamic offense, one that's patient and kind of wears you down, so we just have to play great team defense and capitalize on situations like we do have," Myers said. "Their defense isn't giving you a ton, so when you get an opportunity you have to finish it off."
Finishing the Fighting Irish off is something the Buckeyes have been unable to do in the last five meetings. Last year, Notre Dame beat OSU in South Bend in the regular season and then won the inaugural GWLL tourney final over the Scarlet and Gray.
The opponent, with a level of skill and name recognition that Denver didn't possess last year, should add something to this year's spot on the big stage for the Buckeyes.
"I expect it to be a little better, to be honest," Matthews said. "I consider Notre Dame our rival. What better way would there be to end it than to knock them off?"