July 3, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Little did University of Notre Dame vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick know last August exactly how amazingly successful the 2013-14 Irish athletic campaign would prove to be.
Consider that in recent weeks Notre Dame finished first in the Capital One Cup men's sports rankings -- thanks to top-10 men's finishes in soccer, lacrosse and fencing. The Irish women's program finished 19th.
Notre Dame this year finished in third place (following up on ninth place in 2012-13) in the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) all-sports competition -- the best Irish finish in the 21-year history of the NACDA program.
"I go into every year with a set of expectations and they are always wrong, " says Swarbrick with a grin.
"I'm being a little facetious -- but you can't plan on injuries, you can't plan on a player that doesn't end up on your roster for some reason. You have surprises on the positive side and surprises on the negative side.
"Still, I went into this year believing we had as many teams with chances to compete for national championships as we've had in my time here. How that pans out and whether you get the great results we got this year-there are just so many variables that it's hard to say.
"I looked across the teams and at the things I think are the deltas between good years and great years -- things like consistency in the coaching staff, holding a great staff together and quality of the student-athlete leadership. The latter is an especially challenging variable because we try to do a lot of things to identify leaders and build leadership. But, even with all that, you never know."
With 22 of 26 sports qualifying for postseason competition, Notre Dame enjoyed the most spectacular across-the-board set of seasons in its athletics history.
Add that to the ongoing Irish excellence in the graduation rate category (Notre Dame ranked first overall in NCAA Graduation Success Rate numbers last October among all student-athletes for the seventh straight year) and you can make a legitimate case for Notre Dame accomplishing the daily double of athletics and academics as well as any major-college program in the land.
Irish teams this year also produced seven Academic All-Americans, two NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship winners and two NCAA Elite 89 award-winners (that award goes in each championship to the student-athlete with the top grade-point average at the Final Four level).
If the on-the field aspects of Notre Dame sports garner the majority of the headlines, it's interesting to note how the best of the Irish successes in 2013-14 came via some interesting, if not unlikely, scenarios.
Coming off a spectacular football season that featured an unbeaten regular season and Bowl Championship Series title game appearance in 2012, the 2013-14 Irish seasons represented legitimate new ground for virtually every other program on campus as most Notre Dame teams began competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
That meant new venues and more logistically challenging trips -- and, without question, an upgrade in competition level.
The Irish debuted ever so impressively though they won only two ACC Championship trophies (women's basketball and men's lacrosse):
Bobby Clark's squads have been to the NCAA Championship in 12 of his 13 seasons in South Bend, yet the Irish as recently as 2011 did not earn a spot in the bracket. Notre Dame's best previous finishes in that sport came in national quarterfinals back in 2006 and 2007.
Harrison Shipp in 2013 presented a solid argument he should be judged the most accomplished athlete (and scholar-athlete) anywhere on the Notre Dame campus.
After a number-one overall NCAA seed in 2012 and a national title in 2013 (plus former standout Matt Besler holding down a starting spot on the 2014 United States World Cup team's defense), it's obvious Notre Dame is trending as one of the hot names in the sport.
What Muffet McGraw learned (on her way to national coach-of-the-year honors, an unbeaten regular season and an especially impressive clean sheet in both ACC regular-season and championship play) was that the Irish women's hoops chemistry and production would be as good or better than ever, with Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Jewell Loyd leading the way.
The end result was a fourth straight Final Four, another title-game berth and a well-earned national reputation that suggests that Irish women's basketball will continue to compete and succeed at the highest levels of the game.
Notre Dame is now one of only five programs in the country to advance to the Final Four six times and play in four title games (and also play in three in a four-year span).
The Irish brought home an ACC trophy after scintillating one-goal wins over Maryland and Syracuse, then knocked off the Terps once again in the national semifinals, before falling by a pair of goals at the hands of Duke in the title game.
No program in the country has done better than Notre Dame's five straight years of NCAA quarterfinals or better (three Final Four appearances and two title game shots among those).
Not so long ago, the Irish were fighting for respectability with a comparatively fledgling Midwest program. Now Notre Dame consistently is considered one of the elite men's lacrosse teams in the country.
Those three sports represent just a sampling of what happened on the Irish fields of play in 2013-14.
"If you asked me what ties those three teams together, the first thing I point to is student-athlete leadership," says Swarbrick.
"The women's basketball team had exceptional leadership from its senior class -- they were really, really good in that area. There were never practices where they weren't focused, never games they didn't play at the level where you'd want to see them play.
"When you look at a group like our lacrosse team that can be on the verge of maybe not making the NCAA bracket or can get down like it did against Albany (in the NCAA quarterfinals) -- navigating that is all about student leadership.
"In Philadelphia, you could see that on the pitch with the men's soccer team during those final two games. Nothing was going to fluster them--that was so evident."
In addition to its new ACC destinations (and another set of first-time journeys as Notre Dame played its first season on the ice in Hockey East), the Irish roster of head coaches was in transition as well in 2013-14 -- with Ryan Sachire in his first year as men's tennis coach (following the retirement of Bob Bayliss) and men's swimming coach Tim Welsh and track and field and cross country coach Joe Piane partaking in their final seasons with their Irish teams.
Throw those adjustments in with three starring roles for Irish individuals who claimed NCAA titles -- Emma Reaney who twice set American records in the 200-yard breaststroke and foil fencers Gerek Meinhardt (he rose to the number-one world ranking in January 2014) and Lee Kiefer, both repeat NCAA individual champions.
How else did the various Irish sports prosper on their way to this record-setting accumulation of achievements?
Consider some of the accomplishments on the women's side (both men's and women's fencing and track and field are listed here):
Here are additional men's sports achievements:
"One of the things for me is that I believe the best athletes and the best coaches always rise to the level of the challenge. We saw a lot of that this past year," Swarbrick says.
"That was the hardest women's basketball conference anyone has ever been in. The ACC unquestionably was the best lacrosse and soccer conference. On one level I'm really proud of the way people responded to that so successfully.
"Some of the success reflects the fact we have very strong programs. The reason you survive the graduation loss of a Skylar Diggins is because of the strength of that program. The reason you win the soccer championship is because you've been in the field virtually every year and it's your turn.
"There's a consistency and solidness to the programs. With 22 teams in the postseason, you're going to have those opportunities.
"The last thing I think we're seeing here is the fruits of the investments we've made -- in facilities, in nutrition, in areas like that. It's the return you start to see when you work to become better in the areas beyond X's and O's."
Maybe only a coincidence, all this Irish sports success came after many of the big-picture Notre Dame athletics issues -- football playoff, conference affiliation, NBC contract, Under Armour agreement -- had been resolved over the past two years.
After devoting extensive amounts of his time to each of those endeavors, even Swarbrick kidded with his senior staff that he was looking forward to spending more time with his "day job."
Coming off the best year in Notre Dame athletics annals, Swarbrick is convinced the Irish overall can continue to do as well or better in seasons to come.
Safe to say that day job is going quite well, thank you.
-- John Heisler, Senior Associate Athletics Director