Jillian Rizzo is not used to sitting on the bench.
She joined her high school varsity women’s lacrosse team in seventh grade. For the next six years, she was the starter in net for her team. Then she came to Ohio State and started 16 of the Buckeyes’ 17 games in net as a freshman before starting all 15 as a sophomore.
Though her team did not find much success in 2018, finishing with just a 5-10 overall record, Rizzo has provided the Buckeyes with a consistent presence in net. She finished the year second in saves per game at 12.5 per game, giving her team a chance to win every time she started a game.
Having just finished her second season as a starter and never having played for a contender, Rizzo is exactly the type of foundation block the Buckeyes need to start to turn their fortunes around. And Rizzo feels the rest of the team is getting ready to join her in that turnaround.
“Our culture is changing in a way where we are going to be back on top again soon,” Rizzo said. “I look forward to that and I have fun every day trying to help us get there. We got a new strength coach this year who has helped us tremendously and we are all setting the bar higher each day.”
Rizzo was not always going to be a goaltender, however. Lacrosse was not a big sport in her town and when no one else stepped up to play goalie on her high school team, the middle-schooler was thrust into the role.
Though a starter, Rizzo was still one of the younger players on the team. As one of two middle schoolers on the team, older teammates were always jokingly shoving the dirty work onto her like getting water for the team.
But this never seemed to bother Rizzo.
“I had older siblings and I knew all the older kids already,” Rizzo said. “It wasn’t an issue being the youngest, I really liked it. We were all there to play lacrosse so that’s what we did, I was never considered to be the youngest on the field.”
Ohio State head coach Alexis Venechanos said she views Rizzo’s experiences during middle school as part of her success in college.
“She is a confident goalie and she’s always had that maturity from the start,” Venechanos said. “Maybe that came from middle school where she was always playing up. I really think that has shaped her into the type of teammate, person, and player that she is now.”
As she got older, her passion for the sport outgrew most of her high-school teammates. When she came to Ohio State, she was finally given the opportunity to play with others who shared her passion for the sport.
However, with passionate players came a higher standard of performance. Although Rizzo said her self-imposed standards did not change, she immediately needed to adjust to the speed at which she was playing, her daily workouts, all while adjusting to a new team as well. These constant changes never seemed to phase her.
“This is exactly what I was looking for so I thrived upon the challenge. Everyone here wants to be the best they can be and competes to win games whereas in high school, people were there to stay in shape or had nothing else to do in the spring,” Rizzo said. “It’s refreshing to be on a team where everyone cares so much.”
Though that passion has been a pleasant change of scenery for Rizzo, she said she feels the players often get overly emotional on the field, which has a negative impact on their game.
“We love playing and we tend to get a little bit emotional on the field, which is a good thing,” Rizzo said. “But sometimes I think we need to stick to our game plan, and stick to putting our noses down and grinding during the game.”
Venechanos and Rizzo both believe in the group that the team will take into next season and think a turnaround could be coming.
And with Rizzo being one of the team’s leaders, there is at least that steady presence in net for Ohio State to lean on moving forward.