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Sep 27, 2008

Buckeyes relying on Warzycha to fill Balc's shoes

OK, so he's a little nervous. But what do you expect? Ohio State expects Konrad Warzycha to replace star striker Xavier Balc this season.

Keep in mind, Warzycha, as a freshman, didn't start a game for the Buckeyes last season. Never even played up top for the NCAA Division I runner-ups. So excuse Warzycha if he takes a step back and absorbs the enormity of this assignment. Just don't expect him ever to back down on the pitch.

"I want to come in and prove myself right away," says Warzycha, who has yet to score for Ohio State, but remains upbeat. "There is a lot of pressure, I know that, Xavier did so well last year. But I'm going to work real hard to not let anybody down. I won't let the pressure get to me."

Warzycha, whose father, Robert, is the Columbus Crew's all-time assist leader (61) and now an assistant with the team, might be the perfect guy for this top-shelf assignment. Off the field, he's outgoing, laid-back, always smiling. Warzycha impressed Ohio State senior midfielder Danny Irizarry last fall because he never seemed intimidated by the upperclassmen on the team.

Most freshmen shy away from their new teammates. Not Warzycha. He jumped right into the fray, mingling with the older guys. He even joined the soccer team's intramural softball team. Says Tim Stried, former assistant director of communications at Ohio State: "How do I describe Konrad? He would have loved the '70s. Konrad is a free spirit."

But once he gets on the pitch, Warzycha is fiercely competitive, never giving in. Maybe it's because his father has pushed him since he was a boy. Even after young Konrad scored a goal in youth soccer, his father told him he could do better. Robert Warzycha doesn't want him ever to settle because he thinks Konrad can be special.

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"Konrad hates to lose, he cries after losses," says Robert Warzycha, who earned 47 caps with the Polish national team as a midfielder from 1987 to '93, and played in the English Premier League for Everton (1991-94). "I think he will make the most of this opportunity. He does everything he can do to win and I think he can score lots of goals for Ohio State."

Balc, taken second overall in January's MLS supplemental draft by Toronto FC, but later released, scored in bunches for Ohio State. He finished his career with 81 points (23 goals, 35 assists) -- third on the Buckeyes' all-time list. Last year, Balc scored eight goals and added 14 assists.

He was especially dangerous on free kicks, serving wonderful balls to wide-eyed teammates in front of the net, and had a flair for the dramatic. Balc scored three game-winning goals in the postseason and was named a first-team All-American. Ohio State coach John Bluem plucked Warzycha because, although not as polished, he has the potential to play the game just like Balc.

Warzycha, who appeared in 16 games last season, tallying one assist, likely won't burn a defender on an electric run. Bluem hopes to leave that to Andrew Magill, who had five goals and four assists as a sophomore last season, pulling off Balc-like magic with game winners in the NCAA tournament against Louisville and UC Santa Barbara. But Warzycha can set up teammates just like Balc.

He will likely take most free kicks on set pieces and restarts for the Buckeyes and has a rocket for a shot. It could be the hardest on the team. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Warzycha makes a nice target; he's powerful on the pitch. He wins 50-50 balls and keeps defenders off him with his thick frame.

"Konrad could easily play American football," Bluem says. "Physically, he's just so strong, so powerful. If a player bumps into him, he's going to feel it more than Konrad is going to feel it. He came right in last year and mixed it up. Konrad can handle himself."

Adds Warzycha: "If someone comes and hits me, I'm going to hit them right back. I have no problem if it gets physical. I will just play my game."

Warzycha, who moved with his family from Poland to Columbus, Ohio, when he was 8 years old, has played for as long as he can remember. His father always had a soccer ball in the house and took Konrad to games and practices. Warzycha even trained with the Crew last summer.

Being around the pro game his entire life has helped Warzycha pick up the nuances of the game that often can't be taught. He moves well without the ball and always seems to be in the right position on field. Still, before Warzycha is anointed the next Balc, Bluem admits his new striker has some holes in his game.

"Konrad still needs to become more aggressive," the coach says. "He needs to push himself harder and raise his game. Konrad is a nice player, but he needs to become a dominating player."

Warzycha didn't score in Ohio State's 1-0 Big Ten-opening win over Michigan State on Sept. 21, but he did lead the team in shots on goal with five. That's not quite Balc-like, but the Buckeyes sure hope Warzycha is on his way.

Justin Rodriguez covers the USL for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at jrod_showtime@yahoo.com.

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