Feb. 14, 2014
In the last six years the Notre Dame men's lacrosse team has gone from the West (Great Western Lacrosse League) to the East (BIG EAST) to the Atlantic Coast (ACC), but one thing that hasn't changed during that time is the continual success of the program.
Notre Dame is one of just two schools (Maryland) that have qualified for each of the last eight NCAA Championships and the Irish have made it to at least the quarterfinals of the last four tournaments, including two Championship Weekend appearances.
The move to the mighty ACC will pose challenges for the Fighting Irish, but the program isn't exactly entering unchartered territory. Notre Dame has defeated every other ACC member at least once in the last four seasons and the Irish have an 8-8 record against its ACC counterparts since the beginning of the 2010 campaign.
All six ACC squads are ranked in the top 10 of the Inside Lacrosse preseason poll, but it's not just the conference slate that will provide stiff competition for the fourth-ranked Irish. Three of Notre Dame's non-conference foes - Denver, Ohio State, Penn State - also appear in the top 10.
"The challenge this year is going to be handling playing a schedule that's almost inarguably the toughest in the country," Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan says. "We're going to have to prepare ourselves well, recover well and focus on the next time out. That's going to be a challenge as we go through a year with a schedule as difficult as ours. But it's exciting too. We know that there are just no breaks and every week is going to be top-notch competition."
The Fighting Irish won't be attacking this daunting ledger empty handed. Notre Dame returns several key components from the squad that finished the 2013 regular season with the nation's top RPI and garnered a program-best No. 2 seed for the NCAA Championship before finishing with an 11-5 record.
Four of the top five goal scorers from last season are back, including attackman Matt Kavanagh, who established a Notre Dame freshman record with a team-high 32 goals en route to earning All-America honors. Kavanagh also led the Irish in assists with 16. Senior Jim Marlatt, a two-time All-American, was the top midfield scorer for the Irish as he tallied 20 goals and 12 assists. Marlatt and senior defenseman Stephen O'Hara will captain the Irish this season.
"We have an interesting team this year. We have a mix of significant returning guys, but we lost 11 seniors and nine of them played a lot for us," Corrigan says. "We're not really young, but we're not really old either. We're going to have to look for our identity early in the year. With that said, I think we might have more depth of talent than we've ever had. That can help us in terms of getting better on an everyday basis."
In addition to Kavanagh, the Irish welcome back a handful of experienced attackmen that have found the back of the net several times during their Fighting Irish careers. Junior Conor Doyle joins Kavanagh as a returning starter and he is coming off a season that saw him post 20 goals and 10 assists. Senior Westy Hopkins returns to the attack after spending some of last season in the midfield. Hopkins combined to score 36 goals from the attack during his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
"We have a nice blend of young and old on the attack," Corrigan says. "Westy Hopkins is moving back to the attack and he's had a great preseason. Conor Doyle has been on the field a lot during his first two years and now is playing, without question, the best that we've seen him play. Matt Kavanagh is terrific. The fact that we're not going to be leaning on him as much is going to make him even more dangerous.
"We have great depth there. John Scioscia is playing lights out and Ryan Mix is playing really well. I don't want to single anyone out because there's a plethora of guys (in the attack) that can help us in whatever role during the course of the season. We're excited what we have there."
There might be a few more questions for the Irish in the midfield, but there potentially are a lot of answers. Marlatt and junior Will Corrigan are the two returnees from last season's first line and the Irish welcome back fifth-year senior Pat Cotter after he was sidelined for all of 2013 with an injury.
"The thing for us in the midfield is going to be finding groups that can play together and be effective," Corrigan says. "I like the fact we have more two-way middies there than we've had in the last few years. I like that because it fits our style better. It'll make us a better clearing team, riding team and a better transition team in both directions. That's a pretty significant part of our game and if we can be better at all of those things I think our midfielders will be a huge part of that."
Exactly who will be the breakout offensive performers for the Irish in the midfield will be determined as the season goes along, but a more predictable situation might be Notre Dame's short-stick midfield group.
"I think our short-stick defensive middies are going to be a real strength for us," Corrigan says. "I think Jack Near could be the best short-stick defensive middie in the country. He's one of those guys who can do a little bit of everything. Ty Brenneman has been terrific there as well. He has shown great leadership and has really, really worked hard this year. It's been impressive to me how he's seized that position and is making a lot of plays at both ends of the field."
Defense has been the calling card for the Fighting Irish over the last several seasons and the team returns two starting close defensemen in seniors Brian Buglione and O'Hara. Sophomore Matt Landis figures to be the third starter down low after spending last season at the long-pole position.
"I think Steve O'Hara has kind of quietly become one of the best defensemen in the country," Corrigan says. "There's just not a weakness in his game. He brings a physical presence, but it's not like he's some big hitter. It's just that he's a very physical kid. He's very, very smart and knows our defense and communicates well and he takes a leadership role down there. There are very few guys who can do all the things as well as Steve can."
Handling the long-stick duties this year will be junior Henry Williams and senior Ryan Smith. Senior Chris Prevoznik gives the Irish valuable depth at both close defense and as a long-stick midfielder.
A good way to not let opponents score is by not allowing them to have the ball and that begins at the faceoff X. Notre Dame returns all three of its faceoff specialists - Liam O'Connor, Nick Ossello, Trevor Brosco - from last season. Freshman P.J. Finley also could help in that role.
O'Connor, a senior, has been a valuable faceoff guy for the Irish over the last three seasons. He missed some time last year with an injury, but will bring a .523 career winning percentage into his final campaign. O'Connor has compiled eight career points on six goals and two assists.
Ossello played on the team's second midfield line last season and tallied five goals and four assists. The junior has a career winning percentage of .509. Brosco, a sophomore, went 23-of-47 as a rookie.
"Liam O'Connor missed the whole fall and he was banged up last year and he kind of gutted it out to get through the year, but wasn't as healthy as we would have liked him to be," Corrigan says. "What he does at the faceoff X is part of it, but he's also a very good offensive player and he's a very smart defensive player who understands our game at that end of the field. He's a guy who's poised to have a really good year."
Possibly the biggest question facing the Fighting Irish in 2014 is how they will replace three-time All-American John Kemp in goal. Junior Conor Kelly, who has played a total of 12:35 during his career, will get the nod.
"We're not replacing John Kemp, we have a new team and a new goalie," Corrigan says. "You're not going to replace John Kemp, but I have great confidence in Conor Kelly, who has been in the program for three years. I also have great confidence in freshman Shane Doss, who has played very, very well. We don't have any huge concerns in goal at all. It's quite the opposite. We're very confident that we're going to get good goaltending."
That confidence is a reason why Notre Dame has been able to produce an unprecedented run for the program over the past eight seasons. Players come and go and now conferences do as well, but through it all the Fighting Irish have been able to maintain a high standard of success.
"I guess we're just a reflection of changes all over the country with the conferences shifting the way they are. We've been right in the midst of that as much as anybody in lacrosse," Corrigan says. "We've made big changes, but I feel each change that we've made has been one for the positive. Going from the GWLL to the BIG EAST was a big step for us and a good step for the sport. I think us and Syracuse joining the ACC is a good step for us and a great step for the sport. It's been very positive, but it has been part of the shifting landscape underneath us as we try to battle our way to the top."
-- Sean Carroll, Assistant Athletic Media Relations Director