By Jeremy Stafford - email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- Three years ago, Jennie Ott had never seen a lacrosse stick. She'd hardly heard of the sport, though southern whispers of it rose from Charlottesville, where the University of Virginia women were tearing through the ACC.
Two years ago, Ott and a cluster of Shenandoah freshmen began their careers with the Hornets' women's lacrosse team, still having never seen a stick. Still having heard only whispers of the sport.
Last year, Ott was named first-team all-USA South.
"Jennie stands out because of her natural speed," second-year Shenandoah coach Lindsey West said. "She is just a natural athlete, and if you put a lacrosse stick in a natural athlete's hands, normally good things happen."
In fact, great things happened; unimaginable things. As a freshman, Ott led the conference with 65 ground balls, and she was the leader again with 68 last season. Experience, for the Fishersville native, came secondary to raw ability. Pure athleticism. Speed.
At Wilson Memorial, Ott was a forward in soccer and a star in cross country. In 2003, her freshman year of high school, Ott finished fourth in the Region B meet at Panorama Farms in Charlottesville, mere miles away from the U.Va. campus.
Even in the fall, the Cavaliers' women's lacrosse team, in the midst of its fall-ball practices, was gearing up for what later became its third NCAA championship season.
Indeed, world-class lacrosse was -- and still is -- being played underneath everyone's nose, but who could know? Not Ott. Not anyone.
Because lacrosse is a peculiar sport, popular only in splotches up and down the East Coast. Of all major college sports, lacrosse is the cult classic -- the darling sport to the handful of athletes who play it.
Those who do play are engulfed by it; those who don't play understand very little of it. Which is why even today, those whispers from Charlottesville can be too soft to hear. Besides, Ott's ears were too focused on running, on basketball and soccer, to listen. And for good reason.
A week after Ott finished fourth in the region, she ran to a third-place finish in the Group A cross-country meet with a time of 20:25.05. Less than four years later she enrolled at Shenandoah University and signed on to run cross country for the Hornets.
There's a sense of wanting that comes with being a three-sport athlete in high school, then playing only one in college. Cross country was perfect for Ott -- she'd rather run than continue on with soccer -- but it wasn't quite enough. The spring was empty, and unfulfilling.
So Ott, along with classmate and cross country teammate Briana Barron, asked then women's lacrosse coach Lois Bowers, who doubled as the SU field hockey coach, about playing lacrosse. Ott and Barron walked on, along with six other inexperienced freshmen.
"We made up the majority of the team freshman year," Ott said of the eight walk-ons, "so if we didn't play, I don't know what they would have done.
"We kinda had to pick up people."
With the majority of the team still learning the mechanics of the sport, practices under Bowers focused on fundamentals -- simple passing and catching -- rather than schematics.
"It was kinda hard for her because over half the team was new," Ott said. "So she had to teach us all."
Because of her inexperience, Ott played defense her freshman year. Before her first game, a road match at Methodist, Ott spent hours learning the importance of each line on the field. She learned that only a maximum of eight defensive players, including the goalie, are allowed inside of the 30-yard restraining line, and that all players, with the exception of the goalie, must stand still following the tweet of a whistle.
Shenandoah managed only 97 points in 2008 (70 goals, 27 assists), compared to the 355 points (258 goals, 97 assists) the Hornets scored in 2005, when they won the USA South Conference title.
Following the 1-11 campaign in 2008, Bowers relinquished her position, leaving the team as the program's winningest coach.
In June 2008, West, then a graduate assistant for the women's lacrosse program at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., was hired to replace Bowers at Shenandoah.
West understood the Hornets' program well: She was on the Methodist team that lost to Shenandoah 17-13 in the 2005 conference title game.
To this day, West holds the record for most goals, assists and points in a game at Methodist. But after seeing Saint Vincent through consecutive seven-win seasons, West was unsure of what she'd inherit at Shenandoah.
And it didn't help that, scheduled to earn her masters degree in education from Saint Vincent in August, West had to start recruiting for Shenandoah, find a place to live near the Winchester campus, and study for her comprehensive exam, all from Latrobe.
The day she took her exam, West raced down to Shenandoah for the school's annual Meet the Coaches night.
When she finally met her team, finally met Ott, West was ecstatic.
Though the team lacked technical skills and experience, it was overflowing with athleticism -- Shenandoah had potential.
"We had about nine returners, and out of that group only about two had played lacrosse before, so I didn't know what to expect," West said. "But after you see Jennie just run, you're like, 'OK, she's gonna be talented.'"
Under West, and led by Ott, Shenandoah won three games last season and made it to the conference semifinals, where it lost to eventual tournament champion Christopher Newport.
Ott, now a midfielder, was one of only three players -- the others being Laurel Smith and Paola Aguilar -- to start all 15 games last season. Her 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists) was second on the team to Sara Mucciaro's 49 points.
Ott was the only Hornet named first-team all-USA South. Aguilar and Mucciaro received honorable mentions, and Mucciaro made the all-tournament team.
And because Shenandoah lacked an experienced goalie last season, the Hornets' three wins are hardly indicative of their improvement over the past year.
West tweaked the way the Hornets cradled their sticks, and the way they caught passes -- she drew them up a contemporary women's offense. With the addition of assistant coach Dennis Cox, a former men's close defender at SU, West's offense is taking on more and more philosophies from the men's game.
With six gifted freshmen -- including Tori Beasley in goal -- poised to start alongside Ott, Smith, Aguilar and Mucciaro, this year's team is the first in some time which boasts experience at every starting position.
"Coach West and I just want to see this program grow," Cox said. "And I think this program has a ton of potential, especially with this class that was brought in.
"I think that the girls overall have a great attitude and they want to win."
But while lacrosse is buzzing in Winchester, it's still silent in Fishersville. When Ott goes home in the summer, there's no one to throw with, no goal to shoot on.
When Ott tells friends she plays lacrosse, she has to explain what, exactly, that means.
Her parents, surprised at first that she joined the team, are enthralled by her instant success.
Still, Ott laughs, her father prefers she wear a helmet to avoid serious injury.
Just because women's lacrosse is considered a non-contact sport doesn't mean injuries aren't prevalent: A deviated septum serves Ott as a reminder of a blow she took to her face last year; during her freshman season, Ott struggled to breathe after suffering a neck injury.
Even with the Hornets' recent improvement, though, Ott still surveys the Shenandoah campus to generate fans and interest. SU averaged 155 fans at home games last season, still a vast improvement over attendance during the one-win 2008 season.
But if there's one pair of eyes Ott wants to see gazing from the bleachers of Shenandoah's Shentel Stadium, it's that of her 11-year-old sister, Courtney, who's in the midst of a recovery from bone cancer in her left leg.
Courtney was diagnosed with cancer Ott's freshman season, and her continued presence at Shenandoah lacrosse games culminated in a game dedicated to her well-being.
At cross country meets, Ott scrawls Courtney's name onto a piece of tape and wraps it around her left arm. It's a reminder not only of a sibling's love, but of the preciousness of her speed, and of her ability to run. It's a reminder that even the simplest of capacities shouldn't be taken for granted.
The need for constant chemotherapy treatment last year left Courtney in the hospital, and kept her out of the Shentel bleachers.
But surgery, along with chemotherapy treatments on Fridays, has provided Courtney with healthy legs.
Healthy enough to once again watch Ott turn whispers into roars.
"I love her being there, she's my inspiration," Ott said. "She's been my inspiration since this all happened two years ago.
"I run for her, and I play for her, still."