Inside Lacrosse - While change is inevitable when it comes to a new coach, newly minted Notre Dame coach Christine Halfpenny doesn't need to reinvent the wheel in South Bend.
She inherits a team that went 10-9 in 2011 and advanced to the BIG EAST championship game, where they fell just two goals short of earning the conference's automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament.
On the field, Notre Dame's fast, powerful, athletic style is very similar to Halfpenny's former William & Mary team. Off the field, a program that holds a high academic and character standard for its student-athletes is exactly the type of place that suits the ideals Halfpenny holds for her teams.
"Every coach has a different culture," says Halfpenny, who was introduced as the program's second head coach in a press conference on July 27. "I see Notre Dame as one of the most prestigious schools in the nation and we're going to work really hard to earn the respect of every program in the country with a high level of integrity and honor. This program is full of incredible people, great young women and outstanding student-athletes."
The Irish lose the core of its midfield from last season including Shaylyn Blaney, Kailene Abt and Kaitlin Keena, who combined for 110 points last season and two defensive starters in Lauren Fenlon and first team All-American Jackie Doherty. While there are certainly holes to fill, there's a lot of promise in the current talent on the roster as 2011 points and assists leader Maggie Tamasitis returns to run the attack and midfield standout Kaitlyn Brosco, who had a stellar freshman campaign with 32 goals and eight assists, will be a force in the midfield.
Halfpenny, a coach who enjoys watching film and likes for her players to have a high lacrosse IQ, has already started watching film of her new team with her staff and there are a few things that pop out right away that will be focuses of the team this fall.
Offensively, this includes getting the team's shooting percentage up. Notre Dame finished the season ranked first in the BIG EAST in assisted goals, which Halfpenny says is very indicative of the ball movement on offense and a trust amongst her team. However, the team finished last in the conference in shooting percentage, converting on just over 40 percent of its shots.
"Once you do that, there will be more offense, which is something we really honed in on last year for our shooters," Halfpenny says of the importance of a high shooting percentage. "Being more mindful of that, especially in a high, upbeat tempo, is important."
A more fast-paced offense and some different offensive looks will also be the focus this fall while on the defensive side, Halfpenny will incorporate some different defensive scheme as well as a high pressure defense that pressures the ball behind the net.
Halfpenny is also making some changes off the field, emphasizing a philosophy that character development off the field is just as important, if not more, than their development on the field. This starts with a leadership council and an individual development program in which the team is split into three smaller groups and assigned to a coach. A very hands on program that includes weekly feedback and open communication throughout, players are taken through a couple months of development on and off the field. The program has been well received by Halfpenny's teams over the last five years.
"When I put it all together and look at it, 18-22 year olds thrive in a structured environment," Halfpenny says. "It helps that accountability and when they can have that open conversation, it develops a respect and trust and you can see that come out on game day."
Halfpenny's game day opponents will feature some new names this year as she takes the reins of a BIG EAST team after five seasons in the CAA. Just like her former conference, the BIG EAST typically has three to four teams at the top of the conference battling all season to get into the BIG EAST tournament and snag the conference's AQ.
"I'm excited about the competition that the BIG EAST brings and how strong of a conference it is," Halfpenny says. "This year will be interesting. Last year was a down year for the BIG EAST so there will be a lot of teams that want to redeem themselves for last season. There are a lot of styles that are very athletic and a lot of things up for grabs."
The Irish got off to a bit of a rocky start in 2011, losing three of their first five games and going 4-7 out of conference. They started to hit their stride later on in the season, finishing 6-2 in BIG EAST play and making a somewhat surprising run to the conference title game while BIG EAST powers Syracuse and Georgetown were left on the outside looking in. In the end, a good defensive Loyola team with athleticism and speed in the midfield was too much for Notre Dame to overcome and they lost 12-10 in the finals.
That sets the stage for this season as the Irish look to a new era and a chance to improve on last season.
"Last year was a heartbreaking loss and there's still fire in [the team's] belly from that," Halfpenny says. "Winning the BIG EAST Championship is the goal this season and getting back to the NCAA Tournament."