Perseverance in life - and athletics
When Steven Villacorta ‘21 arrived at Denison in the fall of 2017, he was burned out on lacrosse and looking to experience life as a college student. A son of El Salvadoran immigrants and one of the first in his family to attend college, Villacorta was involved in a diverse array of clubs and activities, in addition to his class load as a political science major and Spanish minor.
“One thing I’ve prided myself on, is my ability to reach across different bubbles of the Denison community,” Villacorta says. “If you put yourself out there, relationships run deep. It’s made me a more grounded individual to meet so many types of people and learn about their experiences.”
Still, lacrosse was always in the back of his mind. Growing up in Owings Mills, Maryland, Villacorta first started playing the sport in middle school. Plus, he needed a job. So, Villacorta introduced himself to longtime coach Mike Caravana, and asked if he could be the team manager.
“I didn’t even know he played lacrosse,” Caravana says. “He was very reliable, very consistent. He just carried himself in a mature manner. That would really be the word for Steven. It gives him an edge over everyone else.”
During Villacorta’s sophomore year, the Big Red suffered a number of injuries at the face-off position. That happened to be his specialty, and after mentioning his background to Caravana, the coach decided to give him a shot. The tryout period was intense, but Villacorta held his own in practice and saw limited action while contributing to the scout team.
Just making the team as a walk-on was a major accomplishment. The tradition-rich Big Red are annually ranked among the nation’s best, and with two-time All-American Henry DeCamp ahead of him in the pecking order, Villacorta knew he needed to do whatever he could to simply earn a spot on the roster.
“Denison is an elite program,” Villacorta says. “If I was going to try this, I had to be all in. Coach C is a demanding coach and he has a high standard. Can I meet this standard? If I’m going in, I’m not going to quit or fail.”
His teammates began to notice not only his work ethic, but also his quick hands at the face-off dot. A pair of upperclassmen from the DC metro area — Richie Bartozzi and Jake Waxter — went out of their way to welcome the walk-on.
“What made it so special is they would never do it in front of other people,” Villacota says. “They would privately reach out to me with little words of encouragement.”
All of this led up to a fateful day in the spring of 2019 against Kenyon. With DeCamp out of the lineup and the Big Red struggling, Caravana turned to Villacorta to handle face-offs. In all honesty, the coach was hoping Villacorta would simply break even.
“We were struggling all over the field,” Villacorta recalls. “I was nervous as heck. Here’s a game where we’re not doing well and I’m expected to control what I can control. My number one job was to not make it worse.”
Villacorta not only didn’t make things worse, he won 14 of 22 face-offs, which helped spur a fourth quarter rally that gave Denison a 15-12 victory. That’s when he felt like he had truly arrived as a member of the team.
“The guys love him,” Caravana says. “He’s one of our hardest-workers, the most focused. He’s mature beyond his years. Steven has a kind, welcoming way about him, and yet he’s a fierce competitor.”
Even with his efforts against Kenyon, few could have expected Villacorta to enjoy the level of success he’s achieved as a senior. He ranks fifth in the nation in face-off percentage and is the quarterback of a three-man unit ranked as the nation’s best.
In lacrosse, the ability to win face-offs is vital in maintaining momentum. If you have a good face-off unit and a solid offense, you can maintain possession for long periods of the game and continue piling up goals. With quick hands and a solid base, Villacorta has natural ability, but it’s the mental side of the game that is most intriguing to him.
“There’s different nuanced maneuvers,” Villacorta says. “You can swipe, rake, lift. It’s like a chess game. You analyze what the other guy is doing. How is he moving his body, how are they positioning their wings. If you’re consistently beating him one way and he’s figuring you out, do you have any more tools to counter his counter.”
Villacorta is quick to praise his teammates, particularly Davis Cronin who transferred from Division II Merrimack with national championship experience. The group spends hours together, studying tape and developing strategies.
“We practice so unselfishly,” Villacorta says. “It’s my small little family within the larger family of our team. The chemistry is unparalleled. These are the best teammates I’ve ever had.”
Following a pair of wins over Wittenberg, Villacorta was named to the USILA Division III Team of the Week after a dominating performance that saw him win 83 percent of his face-offs with a team-high 22 ground balls in the two victories. With another successful regular season behind them, Villacorta and the rest of the Big Red are preparing for their first round NCAA matchup with Centre College in Danville, Kentucky on Saturday.
However the season turns out, Villacorta has already made his mark as a member of the lacrosse program. Not that he’ll let his athletic accomplishments solely define him. In addition to his play on the team, he has a job at the training facility and another as a Spanish tutor, while being involved with the Denison diversity and inclusion group.
“I’m not just a lacrosse player,” Villacorta says. “I’m a first-gen, walk-on political science major and Spanish minor. My parents came to this country from El Salvador not knowing how to speak English, having few if any ties here. They started their own companies, sent us to high school, sent us to college. I see it as a relay race. My parents have gone this far in their own life to support us and be successful in their own right, to have their kids continue on as first-gen college students, it’s my time to take the baton.”