The journey of Skyler Blake: How he became the NCAA’s leading goal scorer


Sammy Fay, JCU Sports Information

Skyler Blake looks to get a shot off against Wilmington at Don Shula Stadium on Saturday, April 10, 2021.

Kyle Kelly, Sports Editor

Skyler Blake thought his lacrosse career was over — not once, twice.

Over a year ago, the John Carroll University Men’s Lacrosse Team was off to a 3-1 start in non-conference play, and Blake averaged 3.25 goals per game. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged America, its sports teams and leagues, including the NCAA. Blake, who was a senior at the time, thought his career was done — 22 goals away from breaking the school record. 

Like many seniors, Blake had his plans set after graduation; he was slated to become a graduate assistant with the men’s lacrosse program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the NCAA had granted an extra year of eligibility for all spring sports athletes. That left Blake with a decision to make.

“I took a while,” Blake told The Carroll News. “I talked to a lot of people. I talked to my family, friends, teammates and coaches, obviously. My parents were split because if I would have gone and coached, I would have gone for free. But at the end of the day, my coach was like, you’re going to be out there coaching these kids, knowing that you could be playing instead — you’ll be watching so much film. You’re going to look back and think, ‘Dang, I wish I could’ve finished my career where it started and finished playing my last season.’”

When Blake refers to “coach,” he means Joe Rautenstrauch, who, like Blake, is in his fifth season at John Carroll. It wasn’t the first time he and Rautenstrauch had a conversation regarding Blake’s lacrosse career.

The commitment to John Carroll 

As a sophomore at Dublin Jerome High School just outside of Columbus, Blake had never really heard of John Carroll. Blake’s best friend’s older brother planned to continue his career in University Heights. This opened up the door for Blake to play collegiate lacrosse at JCU.

At the time, the Blue Streaks began their inaugural season playing men’s lacrosse. Brian Small, now an assistant women’s lacrosse coach at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, was the head coach in his first season. Small was in a recruiting battle with a couple of smaller Division I and Division II lacrosse schools to land the two-time first-team All-Region attacker. Blake also pondered hanging up his lacrosse cleats and attending Ole Miss, but Small and JCU made a lasting impression on Blake. The decision became a no-brainer.

“Small was a great locker-room guy,” Blake said. “When I visited, I really liked the players, I really liked the coach, and then I committed my senior year in the fall.”

A tumultuous freshman year

Skyler Blake (right) plays in a lacrosse game as a freshman. (JCU Sports Information)

For many students entering their first year of college, there is certainly adversity. The adversity that Blake faced was almost overwhelming.

Before Blake had even sat in a classroom at JCU, Small had left to become an assistant coach at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Then, the Blue Streaks hired Chris Cooper, except Cooper had already left on the first day Blake stepped on campus as a freshman. The men’s lacrosse program was now in the hands of volunteer assistant coach Jack MacLean, who was a graduate assistant at the time.

During this time, Blake began to regret his decision to come to JCU.

“Yes, I honestly did,” he said. “I was not even really wanting to play lacrosse anymore. So when I went home for Christmas break, I told my parents that I don’t want to play. My dad made me play [the remainder of] my freshman year. He said that I could do whatever I want after, just play the season.”

Just before Christmas break, Rautenstrauch was hired and faced the daunting task of leading a team that needed some sort of direction. At the time, there was no concern about which drills they’d run at practice, a game plan or setting a lineup. It was simply to lead them down the right path.

“My goal was to come in and stabilize it a little bit,” Rautenstrauch told The Carroll News. “Coach Jack MacLean and I had a good foundation that we could build a relationship with. We had good ideas. I did not know many of the guys. My goal was to stabilize it and continue the success. If I come in and screw everything up, that’s not good. 

“I missed fall ball. I was here for the last two days of the fall. I didn’t know anyone’s names or anything. During winter break, I was just trying to meet the guys. It was weird for sure.”

Skyler Blake against Albion in the NCAA Tournament on May 9, 2017. (JCU Sports Information)

In Blake’s first collegiate career game, he scored eight goals against Oberlin on Feb. 18, 2017. For the season, Blake recorded goals in all but two of the 18 games and netted 42 in total. Yet, Blake still wanted to transfer.

“The whole entire year, I was starting, I was playing well, but I still wanted to transfer,” he admitted. “I applied to other schools. I was going to go to Miami of Ohio or Ohio State.”

It came time for a tough conversation between Blake and Rautenstrauch. 

“It was more about the friendships, the academic [side of JCU] and not about, ‘Stay because you will be the leading scorer’ or ‘Stay because you’re really good’ — anything on the field,” said Rautenstrauch, who was a collegiate lacrosse player at Canisius College and a coach there as well. “It was more about the experience at John Carroll.  

“Think about the games we get to play. Those days are more fun than a big-time football game in the fall at a school. What you get to do with your teammates after the game, those nights after you win a game in college — nothing beats that. I tried to give him my experience in college. We really stayed away from what he could be as a player. I just gave him my experiences. I didn’t try to talk him into staying at John Carroll. It was more about, ‘If you stay, this is what you’ll get out of it.’”

The game that changed it all: April 22, 2017, against Ohio Northern 

It was senior day, and the class was honored before the matchup with the Polar Bears. Blake was still set on leaving John Carroll. The memorable day for the senior class became a special one for Blake.

“They played a slideshow of them of the past four years … how much fun that they had and how good the team had become,” he remembered. “That’s when the switch had flipped for me. After that, I was good to go.”

The 2017 JCU Men’s Lacrosse Senior Class

Blake had a season-high two assists in the game. In 2017, the Blue Streaks won the Ohio Athletic Conference Tournament Championship. John Carroll went on to beat Albion 14-9 and won its first NCAA Tournament game in program history. 

Individual and team success made it an obvious choice for Blake to hang around at JCU, but the conversation with Rautenstrauch was what really sealed the deal.

“He’s a huge reason why I didn’t transfer my freshman year and a huge reason why I came back this year too,” Blake said. “Raut said that he would obviously rather ‘have me on the team than not.’ He’s the same person on and off the lacrosse field. I also respect him in the sense that what he says, I truly do believe. He played lacrosse. He knows what it’s like to be outside of lacrosse and what it’s like to not play lacrosse anymore at a certain age.”

Rautenstrauch appreciated that their talk kept Blake at JCU.

“I am glad he thought highly of what I said and took that to heart. It ended up well. He’s back for a fifth year,” he said. “Skyler wasn’t racing away from John Carroll. It speaks a lot about John Carroll and the people here.”

The next three years

Skyler Blake in a game at Don Shula Stadium.

With the help of an offensive machine led by Blake, the Blue Streaks went on to win the OAC Tournament Championship the next two seasons. As a sophomore, Blake scored 44 goals and added 21 assists; the team went 13-5. The following season, Blake notched a career-high 64 goals and 34 assists. 

Blake’s impact on the program has gone beyond the field. As a captain and standout player, his effect on the team has turned JCU into a perennial power in Division III.

“He’s relatable to everybody. He is very down-to-earth. He is not a, ‘Hey, do this because I told you so’ type of leader. He is a ‘Hey, I am going to show you what to do or how it should be done’ type of guy,” Rautenstrauch said. “He has been in their shoes. He’s so easy to talk to, for everybody. Sometimes you have leaders that are too serious. He works his butt off and does everything the right way and is relatable. He pretty much covers every aspect of being a leader and has a good personality of what fits our team.”

One last ride

Skyler Blake in the first home game of the 2021 season at Don Shula Stadium against Marietta on March 17, 2021. (JCU Sports Information)

Three years after Rautenstrauch talked about Blake staying at JCU, the conversation this time around was a complete 180.

“That conversation was more about, ‘Look at everything that you have put in on the lacrosse field. You deserve to come back; finish your last year, break the points record, break the goal record,’” Rautenstrauch said. “A lot of our success is because of him — what he does at practice to make guys better and motivate guys. It was, ‘Hey man, you’ve done it all, and you’ve done it all the right way.’ He puts his body on the line every single game for his teammates. This one [conversation] was that you deserve to break all those records.”

And that’s exactly what Blake did.

In the first game of the season, the Blue Streaks demolished Heidelberg 32-1 on Feb. 27 in Tiffin, Ohio — setting a program record for goals in a game. Blake had six goals in that outing, adding to a career-point total of 245 — a new program record. 

Three games later, Blake was within striking distance of breaking the career goals mark. On St. Patrick’s Day, Blake needed no luck as he found the back of the net 10 times and shattered the record. Blake was only four goals away from setting the NCAA all-time record for most goals in a game. Except, Rautenstrauch respectfully took his foot off the gas in a game the Blue Streaks won 26-2.

Skyler Blake shoots towards the net against Marietta at Don Shula Stadium on March 17, 2021. (JCU Sports Information)

Blake simplified his mindset going into that game.

“My best skill set is to score goals,” he said. “I definitely knew it was on the horizon.”

Now, Blake has 63 goals this season and averages an NCAA best at seven goals per game.

“I have really, really good teammates. I wouldn’t be anywhere without them,” Blake said. “Whether it is with Brendan Whitty, who I have played with the last four years, [the team has] built up such a great connection and [has] great chemistry. [With Whitty], he knows where I am going to be. I know where he likes to throw me the ball. 

“If it’s someone like Bennett [Gorman], who I have played with for five years now, I know where he is going to dodge. He knows where I want to go. It’s definitely all of my teammates.”

Whitty is the unsung hero. Three games ago, Whitty eclipsed 100 career assists and became the first player in JCU history to have done so. Many of those assists have come on goals Blake has scored. 

Brendan Whitty (left), Skyler Blake (middle) and Matt Berdysiak (right) against Mount Union at Don Shula Stadium on March 20, 2021. (JCU Sports Information)

“It makes it so much easier. We are obviously best friends, and we hang out with each other every day,” Blake said. “He has definitely fed me the most assists. Whether it is in the fall, or after practice, before practice, we are throwing together every day. We have built up chemistry over the years.”

Rautenstrauch has seen Blake’s success come full circle since his freshman year.

“His freshman year, we practiced from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. at night. It was cold. We were taking warm breaks in the middle [of] practice. It was cold. This was before we had electric lights, so I had to turn them on and off manually. He would ask me after every practice, ‘Can I stay out and shoot?’ I said, ‘Yep.’

“I would go sit on the bench on the side. He never asked me to pass him the ball or look at him shooting. He just wanted to put in the work. At 10:29 p.m., I would walk downstairs and turn off the lights. That happened every day his freshman year. I am talking in snow, bitter cold, sleet and wind. When I hear that he breaks the points and goals records and all of that, that’s why. 

Joe Rautenstrauch (middle with hat on) talks to his team before a rivalry matchup with Baldwin Wallace at Don Shula Stadium on April 7, 2021. (JCU Sports Information)

“He is so down-to-earth, humble and works super hard. When your best players work like their bottom-end guys, that goes a long way. That’s what he did freshman year. He worked like he [was] the last guy on the depth chart. Yet, he scored eight goals in his collegiate debut.

“That was great as a coach. I knew at this point that I am going to like it here. I like the work ethic that these guys have.”

Blake only has five games remaining that are guaranteed in his lacrosse career. The Blue Streaks are vying for their fifth title in program history and looking to make noise in the NCAA Tournament — a goal the team has yet to accomplish. 

“Obviously, the first step of getting there is to win the OAC. At the end of the day, no one plays just to win their conference championship,” Blake said. “It’s for the chance to play in the final four, a chance at a national championship. One conference championship is good, but taking that next step and getting to that next goal is an entirely different thing and mindset that you have to push yourself to.”