Feb. 20, 2003
After losing seven games by a combined 10 goals in 2002, it is no surprise that Irish head coach Kevin Corrigan says his team will be focusing on the little things in 2003.
"I think all of our players know that we lost five one-goal games last year. Those were five games we could have won. There wasn't a huge difference between winning and losing those games, so everybody's a little bit focused on finding those small differences this year."
Corrigan's squad will look to regain the form this year that the 2001 squad exhibited, going 4-1 in games decided by three goals or fewer on its way to a 14-2 season and the program's first ever appearance in the NCAA semifinals.
"You have to be focused on finding those small differences in September and October and January and February if you're going to find them in March and April. That's what we're confident that we have been doing. We have an attitude that's going to allow us to do that."
According to the Irish head coach, who has led his team to the NCAA tournament 10 times in his 14 years at Notre Dame, this year's team will be a completely different squad than last year's unit that finished 5-8 and was the co-champion of the Great Western Lacrosse League, but missed postseason play.
"I don't relate it [the team's prospect for success] to last year that much. I just relate it to the attitude of this year's team. Certainly it is affected by last year, but we don't want to frame it in the context of last year. This is a whole new team, just like last year was a whole new team from the final four team."
The '03 Irish, which returns six starters, has shown great promise in its approach to the upcoming season.
"I love the attitude and approach this team has taken," says Corrigan. "They are excited about playing. They enjoy being out there. They work hard, and it is not something where we feel we are pushing rope to get them to do things. They're excited about everything we are asking them to do, and guys are doing a lot on their own."
Unlike a year ago, when Corrigan was forced to replace six starters including his entire starting attack unit from '01, this year's Irish team will feature veterans in every position, as well as some young players looking to make large contributions. This could make this season's team one of the more balanced squads Corrigan has had at Notre Dame.
"Unlike a lot of years, I don't think we have one area that we can look at and say we think we can be great at this," says Corrigan. "Probably the strength in this team is that I think we can be good at everything. I think we can be a good man-up team and a good man-down team. I think we can be a good offensive half-field team. I think we can be good at transition, and I think we could be a good defensive team. I think we can be good across the board, in every area of the game. I think I can say the biggest strength is that we don't have any glaring weakness."
After heading into last season losing six of the top eight scorers from the previous team, this year's Irish is in the opposite position, returning six of the top eight leading scorers from the '02 squad. In addition to the core of veterans, Corrigan anticipates contributions from a number of freshmen and sophomores.
"We're going to rely a lot on sophomores and freshmen. We'll have more freshmen than seniors playing; we only have six seniors. The weakness I think you might point to is inexperience in many of the people who will be on the field."
Because of the youth of this Notre Dame team, Corrigan hopes to see a great deal of improvement as the season goes on.
"As the guys get more experienced and as guys get more comfortable playing with each other, you hope they will improve," says Corrigan. "Because one of the things about being young is that guys obviously haven't spent years playing together. I think we should be in a position where we should continue to improve throughout the year."
According to Corrigan, a big key for this year's team will be the ability of the defense to step up when the offense is struggling and vice versa, something the '02 squad was unable to do. The relative lack of experience on the attack adds an extra problem.
"Offensively, this year we're still so young that there are going to be times we won't necessarily be clicking all around," says Corrigan. "Defensively, we have more experience so we should be able to be good in that aspect immediately. But no matter what your team is like, there are times when your offense is working well, and times when your defense is working well. The key is to have a team that recognizes what's going on and knows how to win games when everything's not going well and knows how to put themselves in a position to be able to win. Last year, we just didn't find those ways to win."
Once again, Notre Dame will face a difficult schedule in 2003, one featuring 11 teams in the top 25 of the Inside Lacrosse preseason poll, including four in the top 10. Among the foes to face the Irish are #4 Virginia, #5 Maryland, #9 North Carolina, #10 Hofstra, and #12 Loyola. In addition, the Irish will compete in the Great Western Lacrosse League for the 10th season, looking for their ninth championship.
"I just like the fact that we're playing good teams from beginning to end," says Corrigan of this year's slate. "Every game is an important game, and it's going to be an interesting schedule. The one thing I do worry about is our team getting fatigued. It's going to be a little bit of a long haul, from late February to early May. Whether you win or lose, by the end of this season, if we handle things correctly, we'll be playing our best lacrosse and we'll have played a variety of great programs, which will prepare us [for the NCAA tournament]."
Putting the ball in the net was a problem at times last year, with the Irish managing just 109 total goals, which was 80 fewer than in 2001 and marked the lowest total in the program's history. But two of three starters from last year's attack unit, which featured all first-year regulars, return this year, including the team's leading scorer, Dan Berger. In addition, Corrigan anticipates some young players to give the unit a boost.
"I just think we'll have more guys who can make plays," says Corrigan. "Last year we had to work very hard offensively to manufacture goals. I think we're going to be able to create more offensive scoring opportunities this year because we have more people who can do it. I don't think it's going to be as hard to generate offense as it was last year."
After playing in only six games and scoring one goal as a freshman in 2001, Berger became Notre Dame's most prolific offensive threat a year ago, netting 21 goals on 47 shots for a sizzling .447 shooting percentage.
"Dan had a great season last year under difficult circumstances," says Corrigan. "He was playing with young guys and was called on to play a role that was not where he would have been most comfortable. Frankly, I think that Dan will be better because he will be surrounded by better players. He is going to be able to play a role that he's better at and more suited to. I think he'll be excellent."
Senior Kyle Frigon, who joined the Irish in 2001 as a walk-on, will also be back for the Irish after stepping into the starting lineup a season ago. His 11 goals are the second-most among returning players. Like Berger, Frigon had a knack for finding the goal when given an opportunity, converting on 37.9 percent of his shots. An improvement of his mental game could lead to much success this season.
"Kyle had a good fall, and I think he started to play within himself," says Corrigan. "I think his sense of the game is improving, and I think he's a guy that's going to play for us in some role, and can be extremely effective. How much and how well he plays will be determined by how well he makes decisions, not by improving his skills."
Another bright spot for the Irish attack in '03 will be the return of junior Matt Howell, who started two of the first three games last year before suffering an injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the year. In those three games, Howell had four goals on 11 shots, establishing himself as the most dangerous offensive threat for Notre Dame.
"I think Matt Howell being healthy would have meant three more wins for us," says Corrigan of last year. "That was a crucial injury. We were not deep on offense last year, and we lost our best offensive player. I think Matt is a key guy for us this year. He's got a great feel for the game. He does everything well as an attackman. He doesn't do anything exceptionally well, but he does everything well. I think he adds a savvy to our team. Also, with his experience, I think he's going to be a key guy for Berger and for helping our young attackmen."
Junior John Mulflur will look to increase his playing time this year after appearing in 12 games last season, scoring his second career goal.
Corrigan sees his younger players having a real chance to make a difference on the offensive end this year: "I think we have young attackmen in both our sophomore and freshman classes that are pretty talented kids that can contribute."
Among those are sophomore Matt Malakoff, who earned a great deal of playing time as a midfielder last season but was moved to attack in the offseason. Last year, he played in every game, making five starts and scoring four goals.
"Matt really got some experience last year," says Corrigan. "He's got a good sense of the game. He has good skills, and I think he will be a contributor on our attack."
Among the freshmen, Patrick Walsh and Brian Hubschmann, who may also see time at midfield, seem to be the favorites for making a swift impact.
"Pat is a very talented kid," says Corrigan of Walsh, who was a two-time prep All-American. "He's got great eyes and a great sense of the game. We're looking at him as a guy that we think can make plays for us."
"I think Brian has a tremendous amount of potential," says Corrigan of Hubschmann. "I think he's got the ability to help us this year. He's got a good, solid all-around game."
Junior Paul Cappelli and sophomores Dan Straka and Jim Morrison should also add depth to the attack unit.
The youth movement afoot on the Irish team will be nowhere more apparent than in the midfield. With sophomore Brian Giordano as the only returning starter, Corrigan will rely on a few veterans who have played reserve roles in the past, but also many talented young players.
Giordano stepped into a starting role immediately last year after being moved from the attack, where he played in high school. He responded with nine goals and 10 assists, the most of any returning player. This year he will be expected to improve on that performance.
"We're looking for a big year from Brian," says Corrigan. "For a freshman last year who was asked to take on a pretty big role at a new position and make some plays for us, I think he really took that challenge well. I think it's made him a better player. He's playing this year with more confidence and more aggressiveness. I think he's really going to develop into a top all-around player."
A pair of captains, senior Travis Wells and junior Steve Clagett are expected to be key contributors in the midfield, as well. Both came off the bench in every game a year ago, but were able to convert scoring opportunities. Wells had 10 goals, while Clagett found the net six times on only nine shots.
"We need Travis's experience, and we need Travis's ability to go hard to the goal, but what we also need is for Travis to start finishing the ball," says Corrigan of the senior. "We need him to be a consistent guy who's getting us a couple goals a game, and he's capable of doing that."
"Steve is one of those guys that just makes a team better," says Corrigan. "He's very sound fundamentally, and he's a very smart, crafty player. He makes plays out of all kinds of situations. We are really excited this year that he's going to be playing both ends of the field, and we think that's going to allow him to make plays."
Junior Owen Mulford is the only other veteran who will see time in the midfield. He played in 11 games in 2002, starting once and scoring his first career goal.
"If Owen can play consistently aggressive and be tougher mentally and physically, he's going to be one of our top middies," says Corrigan.
A pair of sophomores, Chris Richez and Colin Fatti, figure to challenge for time, as well. Richez played in all 13 games a year ago in a reserve role, scoring six goals, while Fatti saw action only twice, but has made progress in the offseason.
"Chris is a kid that keeps getting better," says Corrigan of the more experienced player. "He came to us as an athlete playing lacrosse and he is making that transition into an athletic lacrosse player. If he continues to improve, I think he's got a chance to be an outstanding midfielder."
"Colin came back this fall and played his best lacrosse we've seen and really put himself in a position to compete for playing time this spring," says Corrigan.
Freshmen Matt Karweck, Matt Ryan, and Drew Peters are also expected to challenge for immediate time on the field.
"We think Matt [Karweck] is going to be an impact player, a key offensive guy for us, because he can do everything well offensively," says Corrigan. "He's going to be on our first midfield I think, and he'll be a key guy for us."
"I think Matt Ryan has great natural instincts for the game," says Corrigan. "I think he's going to be really good, and he can play a big role for us right away."
"Drew is an extremely talented athlete," says Corrigan. "He's going to be a guy that plays for us this year. It's just a matter of defining what role he's going to play in, but he's absolutely going to be on the field."
Junior Nick Petcoff and sophomores Craig Bishko and Frank Matarazzo figure to handle the face-off duties for Notre Dame after the departure of face-off specialist Chad DeBolt. Petcoff was the secondary face-off man in 2002, winning 24 of 64 (.375) draws.
Sophomore Tyler Krummenacher and freshmen Chris Jarvis and Steve Panos should add depth in the midfield.
The Irish defense is the one area that Notre Dame has a core of experienced veterans who figure to play most of the minutes. Preseason honorable mention All-Americans John Souch and Eric Simon figure to be the anchors of the unit, with both also serving as team captains. In addition, junior Mickey Blum, who has been a starter for the last season and a half, and others will form a group of experienced players on defense.
"We have more experience there than we do anywhere else," says Corrigan of his defense. "We are top heavy with juniors and seniors at defense. We have traditionally been a very good defensive team, and I think we could have one of the more athletic defenses that we've had. I think, because of that, we can be very good."
Simon started all nine games he played in last year, though a hand injury forced him to miss four contests. Nonetheless, he scored a goal and collected 36 ground balls, the most of any returning player.
"He's one of those guys that follows the classic developmental model - he got a little bit of playing time as a freshman, played a more significant role as a sophomore, and played a key role as a junior. Each year he has kind of improved and expanded his role, but also improved and expanded his abilities. I think now the next step for him is to play at that top level, that All-American level, and I think he's capable of doing that."
Joining Simon in earning preseason honorable mention All-America honors from Inside Lacrosse magazine is Souch, who is highly touted despite the fact that he enters his final season without a career starting assignment. Souch has played a key role as a longstick midfielder in each of the last two seasons off the bench, picking up 112 career ground balls, by far the most of anyone on the current roster.
"I think John has the ability to be one of the top longstick middies in the country," says Corrigan. "I think he has really worked hard, and he has great experience. He's been playing since day one for us."
Blum is the lone player remaining from the final four squad that started more than one game that year. After gaining six starts as a freshman in '01, he stepped into a full-time starting role a year ago, picking up 25 ground balls.
"Mickey is a guy that has had a lot of playing time for us the last two years," says Corrigan. "Between his experience, his exceptional lacrosse intelligence and understanding of the game, his good communication skills, and his developing athletic ability, I think he is ready to have a big year."
Another veteran expected to contribute is junior Brennan Creaney, who played in every game a year ago, earning one start and collecting 17 ground balls.
"Brennan is an outstanding athlete, and he has really learned how to play defense," says Corrigan. "He didn't start playing lacrosse until he was a junior in high school so he is really a kid who has developed tremendously since his freshman year. There's nobody on our team that has improved as much in the last two years as Brennan Creaney. I think he's going to be an outstanding defenseman this year."
Freshman D.J. Driscoll may also be in the mix for Notre Dame this season.
"I think D.J. is an extremely talented athlete," says Corrigan. "He's definitely going to play this year. He's going to be an extremely important guy to our defense because of his versatility and also because of his ability."
After making the move to longstick midfield last fall, junior Chris Masterson and sophomore Taylor Matthews also will look to earn playing time.
Adding depth to the defensive unit will be senior Mike Fries, sophomore Mike Hagerty, and freshmen William Sullivan, Brandon Schultheis and James Severin.
In the last line of defense, Corrigan will have the luxury of a pair of game-tested goalies to choose from. Senior Nick Antol and junior Stewart Crosland split time between the pipes a year ago, combining for a 7.83 goals against average and a .610 save percentage. This year both figure to challenge for playing time.
"We've got two good goalies who both have experience," says Corrigan. "It's going to be very competitive. I am fully confident that we'll be in a situation where our starter will be good, and our back-up will be very good as well. We're not going to look into splitting the time or doing anything like that, but I think we're in a great situation because both guys have experience and ability and both guys have worked hard."
Antol got the starting nod in 10 games last year, giving up 8.19 goals per contest, while stopping 58.5 percent of opponents' shots.
"Nick got great experience for us last year," says Corrigan. "He has established himself as a leader, and I think he's going to be extremely competitive for the goalie position this year. He's a great communicator, he is very good out of the goal, and he has a knack for making big saves."
Crosland appeared in six games, with three starts, and stopped 67.7 percent of shots, allowing 6.62 scores past him per game.
"I think Stewart has the potential to be one of the top stoppers in the game," says Corrigan. "He has great hands and great eyes. He has really worked hard to develop all-around skills as a goalie, including outlet passing and handling the clearing game and developing as a leader of the defense. I think he's going to be outstanding."
In addition to the competition challenging each player, Corrigan thinks that having a familiar and battle-tested face behind them will help his defense.
"There's no question their experience will help everybody," says Corrigan. "You've got guys that have been there playing behind you. Both of those guys have been in games where they've played well and games where they didn't play as well. That experience is going to help them and help everybody around them."
Sophomore Sean Quigley and freshman Dan Hickey give Notre Dame depth in goal, but are not expected to see playing time this season.