Facing Challenges the Blythewood Way

#1 – Zach Simmonds, #2 – Jake Bailes, #3 – Matt Summerford (C), #4 – Nic Van Zyl (C), #5 – Walt Simpson, #7 – Tommy Gunter (C), #8 – Hunter Allen, #9 – Hasan Khan, #10 – Eric Reid, #11 – Jake Armstrong (C), #12 – William Oakes, #13 – Ryan Williams (C), #14 – Ty Auton, #15 – Jake Berg, #16 – Evan Taylor, #17 – Owen Heller, #21 – Cole Sanders, #26 – Max Bloom, #27 – Karson Zermillion, #28 – Brandon Edwards, #30 – Caleb Ledley, #33 – Billy Lopes, Head Coach: Jason Cuzzupe | Photo: Gregg Martin Photographic Design

After a one-win season in 2019, Blythewood High School boys lacrosse head coach Jason Cuzzupe’s team finally turned the corner.

When Cuzzupe took over the program three years ago, he knew he wanted to change the program’s culture – to really cultivate positivity among the players. The coaching staff bought in to the idea of giving more ownership to the players. They restructured the program and focused on fostering relationships in and outside of practice, and the players responded.

Cuzzupe said an overall feeling of brotherhood developed, and it could be seen on the field as the Bengals picked up a win in the first game – a 15-8 blowout of Spring Valley – and then another against Immokalee High School from Florida.

As the momentum was picking up, the team was set to battle with Lexington High School on March 13. The rumors of a cancelled season were swirling, but no one knew how quickly the hammer would drop. Cuzzupe recalls the game vividly. His team stepped up and battled into an overtime loss to a Wildcat team that had easily handled them the previous season. 

 “It was a tough way to end the season,” Cuzzupe said of their final game amidst the COVID-19 closures. “Watching from a position of helplessness was really tough. I’m sure it was devastating for every athlete in the country.”

The team stayed as positive and hopeful as they could for as long as they could, but the frustration of a lost season set in.

With three returning from the previous season and the addition of three to the team, Cuzuppe credits much of the mental change to the six seniors on this year’s team.

The returning seniors, Thomas Gunter, Jacob Armstrong and Ryan Williams, were named captains, and Cuzzupe says they were instrumental in pushing the positive culture mentality.

“I couldn’t think of three better young mean to be in a position of leadership. They were just such a delight to be around and were always there for the team.”

“Ryan was the Swiss army knife of the team,” Cuzzupe said. “He just had pure grit. He played injured and helped coach other players when he couldn’t play.”

Seniors Karson Vermillion and Billy Lopes joined the team for their first year of lacrosse. Cuzzupe says that even lacking in skill at the beginning, their hard work and diligence inspired the team.

Brandon Edwards returned to lacrosse after three years off. Edwards, who is committed to play football at the University of South Carolina led by example on the field.

“His basic athletic ability is unbelievable,” Cuzzupe said. “He was the energizer bunny.”

“The mix of inexperience with expertise along with positivity and good, hard work-ethic gelled together really nicely. It was tough to see the season cut short because I felt like we were in such a good position to get back to the playoffs.”

Though 2020 playoff hopes were dashed, Cuzzupe hopes to translate the team’s growth into next season. He looks to return Blythewood’s first Division 1 lacrosse commit – Nicholas Van Zyl.  Van Zyl, a junior, is set to play at St. John’s post-graduation, and Cuzzupe is glad Van Zyl will get to return to finish out what he started.

 “The pandemic put a perspective on what sports actually provide for kids – what’s important to get out of sports,” Cuzzupe said. “Youth sports gives kids positive challenges to face. It gives them a leg up early – the ability to challenge themselves and face issues. Mental growth is equally as important as physical, and sports offer that.