Jan. 16, 2017
By John Heisler
It's a long haul from now until May when the University of Notre Dame men's lacrosse team hopes to be making headlines in the NCAA Championships.
How best to make those springtime dreams come true?
Irish coach Kevin Corrigan is trying a new wrinkle.
Corrigan normally schedules a pair of preseason games. This year there are four-beginning Sunday with Notre Dame's outing in Bradenton, Florida, in Team USA's Spring Premiere event and continuing the next three weekends in South Bend against Bellarmine, Air Force and Detroit.
"It's totally by design," said Corrigan Sunday. "We've been a certain kind of team and we need to determine under fire if we're still that kind of team or if we need to make adjustments and what those adjustments are. Those decisions are hard to make practicing against yourselves.
"The last couple of years we came into the spring with an identity we knew and understood. It was easy to work toward that identity. This year it's just not the case. Forming that is hard-that vision of what you want be."
That process began at IMG Academy on a partly cloudy 76-degree day on which the Irish overcame a sluggish start to go toe to toe with Team USA after halftime. Notre Dame actually outscored Team USA 7-6 after the break before the best American players in the country posted a 16-11 triumph in front of 1,867 fans.
"I'm only concerned about the things we can control," Corrigan told his team before the start. "They've got great players and they are going to make a certain number of great plays. Let's just play with great awareness. And no matter what happens it's on to the next play.
"I don't care if the score is 15-10 us or 15-0 them-we're out there to get better. We're here to compete all day long."
Neither team looked sharp in the early going (both squads turned the ball over eight times in the first period of 20 minutes running time)-yet that hardly came as a surprise. The Irish had been off for the holidays before gathering for their first January workout Wednesday in Florida. Team USA's roster (including four-time Irish All-American Matt Kavanagh who graduated in May) flew into town Friday-and John Danowski's club hadn't seen any meaningful game action since an intra-squad game in September as part of the grand opening of the new US Lacrosse facility in Baltimore.
The Irish kept it close at 3-2 on Sergio Perkovic and Mikey Wynne tallies-until Team USA scored three in a row and then later four straight in the second period. Former Cornell star Rob Pannell had three goals in the first 20:20and his Team USA led 10-4 at intermission. At the halfway mark Notre Dame had been outshot 17-10, lost 10 of 15 face-offs, turned it over an uncharacteristic 13 times and saw Team USA lead 17-10 in ground balls.
The Irish never really found an offensive rhythm in the first two periods-as Team USA forced Corrigan's crew to start its possessions at the outer reaches of the field.
"The first half was so frustrating because there were so many things we did poorly that had nothing to do with them," said Corrigan. "Just eliminate those things and we'll find out if we can compete with them. We did not give ourselves a chance to compete in the first half because we turned the ball over and made mistakes on defense that you're not going to get away with on anybody, much less a team like this. Once we eliminated those kinds of mistakes it was a more even contest."
The Irish looked a bit more like themselves in the second half. After junior Owen Molloy played in goal the first two periods, veteran senior Shane Doss took over after halftime and made seven saves, several of the sparkling variety. From a 13-5 deficit two-thirds of the way through period number three, Notre Dame snapped off four straight goals by midfielder Drew Schantz, junior Pierre Byrne, sophomore Ryder Garnsey and then a man-up chance by Perkovic.
Corrigan liked the way his team finished. After the Irish called time with 1:05 remaining to set their defense, Doss made a nifty save and long-stick middie John Sexton took it the other way to score with 32 seconds remaining.
Team USA still finished with final advantages of 41-27 in shots, 36-16 in ground balls and 17-12 in face-offs. Notre Dame's 24 turnovers offset 18 by Team USA. The Irish ended with 10 saves to four by four different Team USA goalies.
Corrigan made sure to remind his players they were playing against the best players in the country (maybe the best in the world). It's a savvy group that knows how to play and was particularly impressive in fighting its way to the bulk of the loose balls.
"You don't get many changes to play against a collective group of guys that good," the Irish coach said of the Team USA unit, all of whom are playing professionally other than faceoff expert Trevor Baptiste, a Denver undergraduate.
"There are lessons to be learned all over the field, individually and collectively, unit-wise in terms of face-offs, man up, man down. Everything those guys do is so good, so clever-and, yes, they are the best athletes, too.
"So it's a terrific opportunity for us to learn about ourselves-learn what kinds of things we can do at a high level-and maybe some things we decide not to do because we can't do them at a high level. You find that out under fire--it's hard to do that against yourself in practice every day.
"We get to learn from it twice. We get to learn from all the adjustments we made on the fly on the field out there today and then we get to go back and do it again looking at the film and seeing all the little things we can improve. This was an awesome five days to start the year. It's all about getting better every day."
Wynne finished with three goals and Perkovic, Garnsey and Schantz had two each. Garnsey also had three assists. Defenseman Hugh Crance paced the Irish with four ground balls.
Beyond the returnees, freshman middie Tom McNamara earned a start (and had an assist) and rookies Jack Kielty (two ground balls), Brian Willetts, faceoff man Kyle Hyland (he won four of nine attempts), Eric Restic and Michael Farnish all added their names to the score sheet.
Four proved the operative number Sunday as the Notre Dame men's lacrosse team kicked off its 2017 season in sunny Bradenton.
The Irish head into the season ranked fourth in the preseason poll of coaches by the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association.
Corrigan is building his 2017 squad around at least four all-stars, one at each level, in attackman Wynne (Notre Dame's leading returning scorer from a year ago with 40 goals and 44 points), midfielder Perkovic, defenseman Garrett Epple and goaltender Doss. Perkovic, Epple and Doss all were first-team preseason All-America picks for 2017 by Inside Lacrosse.
And the Irish came into their preseason match against Team USA at IMG Academy with four workouts under their belts after arriving Wednesday to begin training.
If Notre Dame can translate all these early lessons into positives by May, the Irish may well have a chance to make the 2017 final four field in Foxborough.
As Corrigan well knows, only time will tell.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler regularly follows Irish lacrosse fortunes for Fighting Irish Media.