March 3, 2018
By John Heisler
Kevin Corrigan's desire to steel his University of Notre Dame men's lacrosse players for the intensity and emotion of playoff lacrosse come May begins now with playing the toughest schedule in the country.
The NCAA certifies that designation regularly-this week listing the eighth-ranked Irish number one in that category with Notre Dame's 2018 opponents already playing at a .791 clip (34-9) heading into action this weekend.
So it was no surprise after a pair of home wins over unranked Detroit and Richmond that Notre Dame's week-by-week gauntlet became decidedly tougher in College Park, Maryland, against a second-rated Maryland team that just happens to be the defending NCAA champion-and now stands 5-0 after the Terps' hard-earned 12-10 victory Saturday.
Corrigan and his players know they needed to make a few more plays in a variety of areas to have prevailed in this one.
The Irish never led, three times pulling to within a pair of goals after Maryland pushed its lead to 10-6.
It took a career morning and afternoon (the game began at 11 a.m.) from Terp senior midfielder Connor Kelly (three goals, seven assists) who seemed to have a hand in everything good that happened for the home team.
And the Irish?
Next week it's sixth-ranked Denver, then fifth-rated and unbeaten Virginia, then fourth-rated Ohio State (a loser Friday to Marquette in overtime) and later 10th-ranked and unbeaten North Carolina-plus Syracuse, third-rated Duke and so on and so on.
Saturday was a measuring stick-and the Irish will take it from here.
Corrigan before the game suggested to his team that it needed something akin to what viewers saw nightly during the recent 2018 Winter Olympic Games-a mixture of performance and competition.
"It's a combination of how well you perform against your own standard and how well you compete against your opponent," he said. "We've got to have the competitive grit to stand up to the other team and the performance of all the things we practiced. Stay focused on the performance we know we need and stay determined to be the competitors we know we are."
The Irish found themselves behind the eight ball right off the bat, after a penalty flag in the first five seconds helped Maryland to a man-up goal 1:39 into the contest. Maryland scored again a minute later before the Irish tied it at two with markers by Mikey Wynne and Brian Willetts.
From there the Terps scored four of the next five goals and then added the final two of the half, the last of those accounting for Kelly's third as time expired. The Irish faced an 8-5 deficit at the break--yet shots on goal were 13-12 for Maryland, Notre Dame led 7-6 in face-off wins and the teams both had three turnovers.
The early pace was greater than in normal Irish-Terp contests (only twice had a team scored 10 or more goals in the last eight meetings). Maryland had more goals five minutes into the second period than in the entire game in 2017 (a 5-4 Irish victory in South Bend).
Corrigan made it clear to his players at the break there was no need to make huge adjustments.
"When we executed what we wanted to do on both ends of the field we were getting what we wanted," he said.
The Irish somehow survived a third quarter in which they lost all five face-offs, found themselves on the short end of an 8-0 ground ball total and took only two shots (both of which found the net).
Senior Owen Molloy took over in the Irish goal for freshman Matt Schmidt after Maryland took its largest lead of the day at 10-6-and Notre Dame promptly responded with goals by Willetts and Ryder Garnsey to cut the lead again to two.
The Irish hung around the rest of the way despite winning only one face-off in 11 second-half attempts. Kelly had a career day, with his assist total marking the most in history by an individual against Notre Dame and his 10 points equaling the most by a Maryland player since 1979. That's after Kelly had only 11 assists in all of 2017.
Garnsey ("That's as well as he has played since he got to Notre Dame," Corrigan said of him when it was over) had four goals (two in the second period and two in the fourth) and an assist for the Irish.
Willetts, Wynne and Pierre Byrne each notched a pair of goals.
Corrigan felt the Irish made definite progress compared to their previous two games.
"But too many mistakes all over the field to beat the top teams in the country. We've just got to do all those things better over the course of 60 minutes," he told his players.
"There's no such thing as accidental greatness. It starts with an intent to be great. That's the goal-we're not lowering our standards.
"A play here, a play there--we came to compete and we did that. Now let's get better."
Corrigan rued the lack of possessions, especially late. Still, his Irish outscored the Terps in the second half despite the face-off differential.
As Notre Dame's long-time head coach noted, the Irish will play "anybody, anywhere, anytime."
That parade of top-10, top-quality opponents continues its weekly run for Corrigan's crew for the foreseeable future.
The Irish will measure themselves again in a week.