As the winter winds down (fingers crossed), the spring sports slate picks up this weekend. The baseball and softball teams hit the road, while the men's and women's lacrosse teams play home games at Arlotta Stadium. I recently spoke with new women's head coach Christine Halfpenny to talk about her experience at Notre Dame so far and the upcoming season for her Irish squad.
This past summer, Christine Halfpenny was introduced as the second coach in the history of Notre Dame women's lacrosse. Since arriving in South Bend in August, she has been overwhelmed by the ease of the transition, despite having moved from Virginia with her husband and two young sons.
Like so many others who arrive at this university, Coach Halfpenny has been struck by the outpouring of support from the Notre Dame family. "The first week out here one of my fellow coaches looked at me and said 'You know, I just did this move, and honest to God, people will tell you this, but take them up on it - Everything is just an ask away.' And it's been the truth. From fellow coaches to the administrators to people in the community, this is an incredible place that is unbelievably welcoming."
A Step Forward
A Latham, N.Y. native*, Halfpenny graduated from Virginia Tech in 1999. She made coaching stops at Brown, back at her alma mater, and at Duke, before becoming a head coach for the first time in 2007, when she took over the William & Mary Tribe.
(*It was nice to meet someone who, like myself, calls the New York Capital Region home. There aren't too many of us out here at Notre Dame.)
While in Williamsburg, Va., Halfpenny led the Tribe to four straight 10-win seasons and two Colonial Athletic Association regular season titles.
She was attracted to Notre Dame for the same reasons that bring many to this university. "I think the combination of academics that are offered to the top student-athletes in the country and the unbelievable tradition and excellence of the athletic program," she says.
As an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, Halfpenny experienced the big-time atmosphere of Hokie football, a characteristic of Notre Dame that also contributed to her interest in the university.
"[While at Virginia Tech], I was drawn into that community so heavily, and the idea of having an opportunity to get back to a community that, every Saturday, you know what's going to happen - you're rooting for that hometown football team, Notre Dame."
After stops in the Ivy League, and at highly regarded institutions in Duke and William & Mary, Notre Dame seemed like a natural progression in her career, Halfpenny says.
"It offered me the opportunity to continue to recruit the best of the best and then be surrounded by the best of the best, which in my opinion, ultimately will help us win a national championship."
A Growing Game
As it does every year, talk on football's national signing day surrounded Notre Dame's "national brand" and tendency to attract student-athletes from across the country.
But football is not the only sport that recruits from various geographic regions. Though the game's popularity is strongest in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states, lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the country, so Coach Halfpenny and her staff are very much in tune with the national picture.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say that Maryland and Long Island and Philadelphia are the hot beds. But with the growth, we've seen athletes, maybe one of the best on the soccer field down in Texas going, 'Wow, I kind of like the pace of lacrosse. I'm going to see what I can do with that.' Kids that have a great basketball background saying, 'I may not go top-tier Division 1 basketball, but I can go top-tier D1 in lacrosse.'"
From California to Florida to Texas, and close to home in Chicago, the Irish coaching staff is searching far and wide for the best student-athletes, but they're also excited to begin building a stronger youth program locally.
They will host three women's lacrosse camps this summer - including the beginner (youth), intermediate, and elite pre-college player camps, and hope to make a grassroots effort to help the game spread in the Indiana area.
Like many of Notre Dame's other summer programs, the high school elite camp will provide an opportunity for Halfpenny and her assistant coaches, Sarah Dalton and Nick Williams, to get a look at some of the student-athletes that may some day comprise the Irish freshmen class.
This year's freshmen group includes five field players and one goalkeeper, a skilled class that Halfpenny expects will make an immediate impact on the field. "They've done a really, really nice job - they're like sponges - they're doing a great job of leading by simply following," she says. "They bring electric energy to the field. Their passion is amazing and their naive bliss is actually enjoyed quite a bit. They're definitely sparkplugs."
On the other end of the college spectrum, Halfpenny has received tremendous leadership from senior tri-captains Maggie Tamasitis, Megan Sullivan and Jordy Shoemaker. She has also created a leadership committee of younger players, not only to build for the future, but also to help support the on-field leaders.
"They each kind of cover an area of the field, which even makes it easier for us. It just so fortunately happened that way. Jordy's more of a low defender, Meg is a midfielder and Maggie's a low attacker. And they've done a really nice job of being field generals for us."
Ready for 2012
As Coach Halfpenny gets set for her first season at Notre Dame, her squad is ranked 20th in the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association (IWLCA) Division I Preseason Poll. While it's a nice recognition of the talented Irish roster, like most coaches, she does not concern herself with these early season projections.
"At the end of the day, there's one poll that matters and that's the final poll at the end of the year...We really have been working on our mental toughness and our attitude and our approach to the 'daily grind' so to speak, so that we can stay in the play, sometimes have a short memory, learn from the past, but improve every day."
This past weekend, the Irish played a pair of scrimmages in Baltimore, Md., taking on Johns Hopkins and Virginia Tech. Picked to finish fourth in the BIG EAST Conference, the Irish open up regular season play against #6 Stanford on Sunday at noon ET, the first opponent on their 16-game schedule. (The game will be broadcast live right here on UND.com).
In April, they will take on defending national champion Northwestern, this year's preseason #1.
During spring break, the Irish will travel to Florida for a pair of games - facing Ivy League opponents Yale and Cornell. Though Coach Halfpenny describes it as a "business trip," she and her team also plan on enjoying the sunshine and building in some team bonding - a unique opportunity to visit Disney World. With a team of players from across the country, there are a few student-athletes who have never been to Florida, let alone Disney.
Not All Lacrosse Is The Same
As both the men's and women's lacrosse squads begin their regular season, it's interesting to note some of the differences between the games.
Perhaps most notably is that the men's sport is contact. "I always compare us to basketball, where it's 'non-contact,' but I think we might actually be classified now as contact," Halfpenny says.
While the men's game incorporates full pads and helmets, the women only wear mouthguards and goggles.
Among the new women's rules for the 2012 season, players who commit a foul must leave the field for two minutes and the team must play short-handed in the offensive and defensive zones, including the critical scoring area.
While this presents a challenge for teams and coaching staffs, Coach Halfpenny says her team has enjoyed making strategy adjustments, and that assistant coach Nick Williams has been particularly helpful, given his familiarity with the similar man-up/man-down rules in the men's game.
"I'm excited to see what other creative ideas our opponents are bringing to the table and I think it's a great area of growth for all the coaches," she says.
The Digital Age
Speaking of ideas, Coach Halfpenny is eager to build Notre Dame women's lacrosse into a national brand, in the same way the university is well-known across the country.
In today's age of social media, "if you're not getting your information out there on Facebook and Twitter, then you're probably not being heard," she says. As such, the Notre Dame women's lacrosse team has both a Facebook page and Twitter account that will be updated throughout the season.
Halfpenny has seen the strides that men's lacrosse assistant coach Gerry Byrne has made with his team's social media channels, and hopes she can also stay on the brink of everything that's happening with technology.
"People start to learn your personality a little bit more, and in recruiting, that's helpful...you want to get information out in those players' hands," she says. "You want those student-athletes to get the best finger on the pulse of your program when they're making decisions a little bit earlier than in the past."
A Special Place
She and her team will not be making the trip to Orlando for a few weeks, but as Halfpenny gets set to coach her first game on the Notre Dame sideline, sometimes she feels like she's already at the 'place where dreams come true.'
"You step on campus and get - I wish I could articulate it - but I can't. I tell everybody when they ask me how things are going, 'I work at the Magic Kingdom.' Every day I get to drive onto Notre Dame's campus and it's very special."
- Josh Flynt ('11)