April 23, 2015
What a difference a year makes.
Last season at this time, in its first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the University of Notre Dame men's lacrosse team grabbed the #4 seed (with a 2-3 league mark) in the four-team ACC Tournament by virtue of a one-goal, come-from-behind, regular-season road win at #2 North Carolina and an indoor home triumph over #7 Virginia.
In 2015 the storyline is different. This time the Irish are ranked #1 in the country and finished 4-0 in regular-season league play, with victories over opponents then ranked first (Syracuse), second (North Carolina) and seventh (both Duke and Virginia). All four of those teams remain in the top 10 this week.
Will the result be different by Sunday when the 2015 ACC champion is crowned at PPL Park in Philadelphia?
A year ago this time the Irish already had five losses on their resume, including April home defeats by eight goals to #3 Duke and four goals to #5 Maryland. Notre Dame could ill afford to absorb any more losses if it hoped to make the 2014 NCAA Championship bracket--and head coach Kevin Corrigan's crew ended that conversation by earning the ACC automatic bid with a pair of one-goal wins (6-5 on Friday vs. #5-rated Maryland and 15-14 Sunday vs. #4-ranked Syracuse) in the conference tournament. That momentum launched the Irish all the way to the NCAA title game where they fell to Duke by a pair of goals.
So what happens now when Corrigan's team qualifies at least as some sort of favorite? The margin is razor-thin, given the fact all four teams come to Philadelphia ranked this week among the top six nationally. It will not qualify as a shocker, no matter who prevails on Sunday.
Corrigan takes it in stride. As he stood on the concrete step to the Arlotta Stadium Irish locker room last Saturday--with a thousand fans, players and family members cavorting on the turf some moments after Notre Dame's dramatic one-goal win over #2 North Carolina--he remained in character.
"I can't really say we're a better team than Syracuse, even though on that one day we won the game (13-12 in double overtime March 28 when the Orange was ranked number one)," he offered.
"I can't say we're a better team than North Carolina even though we made some plays at the end to win today."
Corrigan knows as well as anyone that regular-season results can be fleeting in a league and in a sport where the best teams know each other better than the backs of their hands. In fact, this week's version of "bracketology" in Lacrosse Magazine lists the Irish first, with North Carolina second, Syracuse third, Duke sixth and Virginia seventh. Corrigan knows he and his squad will see a combination of those teams this weekend and probably again in May.
Interestingly, some of Notre Dame's best efforts in May arguably have come a bit unexpectedly. The 2001 national semifinal appearance came when the Irish had no scholarship players. The 2010 NCAA title game came after three straight late-season losses (to Rutgers, Villanova and Georgetown), followed by a first-game BIG EAST Tournament loss to #2 Syracuse. Though the Irish entered the 2014 NCAA bracket rated fifth, they endured five regular-season defeats on their way to another NCAA title game.
The Irish no longer can be cast as newcomers to their sport. They've been to the NCAA Championship nine straight years (Maryland is the only other team to do that) and to the quarterfinal round five consecutive times (Duke is the only other program to accomplish that). Notre Dame's NCAA seeds the last four seasons have been four, four, two and six.
And, yet, even with all that success, the 2015 season (so far) has topped that. This week's polls mark the fourth consecutive week Notre Dame has been ranked number one in the country. Before this season, the Irish had finished atop the polls on only four other occasions (two separate weeks in 2011 and two separate weeks in 2013).
"I mentioned being number one to our guys one time," says Corrigan. "I said, `Who was number one on April 14 last year?' They all looked at me kind of perplexed. And I said, `Exactly, and no one will remember who was ranked number one on April 14 this year.' That's the only time we talked about rankings. It doesn't change what the job is day to day."
Notre Dame, in many recent seasons, has hung its hat on defense and goaltending. The Irish ranked as the best defense in the country (in terms of goals allowed per game) in 2009 and 2012. Irish goaltenders Kirk Howell, Joey Kemp, Scott Rodgers and John Kemp all earned third-team All-America recognition or better in at least one season, and Alex Cade (1996), Rodgers (2009) and John Kemp (2012) all led the nation in goals-against average. Goaltender Conor Kelly followed up that level of play in 2014 by earning recognition on the NCAA Championship all-tournament team.
The Irish of 2015 represent talents at virtually every level. Junior Matt Kavanagh (he's on the cover of the latest issue of Lacrosse Magazine), rookie Mikey Wynne, captain Conor Doyle and sophomore Sergio Perkovic are the scorers. Veteran Jack Near and Perkovic hold together the midfield, while Matt Landis and Garrett Epple anchor the defense. Sophomore P.J. Finley has come on to win the faceoff job. Early in the season, some experts questioned the Notre Dame goaltending--but sophomore Shane Doss, who came on midway through the season opener against Georgetown, has quieted that conversation with his play. Kavanagh, Perkovic, Doyle and Landis made the all-ACC team announced Wednesday, and the case can be made that the all-ACC team by itself would make a solid All-America list.
That group now has won six straight games, all against opponents rated 15th or higher. That streak strongly resembles the six straight ranked wins Notre Dame put on the board late in 2014, beginning with the ACC Tournament. The 2015 Irish have seen half their games decided by one or two goals.
The Irish currently rank seventh nationally in scoring (13.8 goals per game), third in shot percentage (at .358) and second in man-up offense (a .621 conversion rate on 18 of 29). The Notre Dame scoring figure currently ranks behind only the 1992 Irish team that finished at 14.1 goals per game.
The LaxPower web site this week lists Notre Dame number one nationally in all five of its rated categories--polls, RPI, strength of schedule, quality wins and tournament selection index. The NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Committee Wednesday issued its first regular-season top 10 national ranking--with Notre Dame atop the poll.
And, yet, it all still seems to come back to the ACC. In Notre Dame's nine consecutive NCAA appearances (2006-14), nine of its 20 NCAA games have come versus ACC foes. In Notre Dame's 19 all-time NCAA appearances, an ACC team has eliminated the Irish in nine of those years (including five of the last six, with the last four all coming against Duke).
As much as Corrigan likes his current team ("This is the best practicing team that we've had," he says. "With very little drama and fanfare, they show up every day and work hard.") he knows it all comes down to how well the Irish perform on the field over the weeks to come.
Adds the Irish head coach, "We come in and figure out what we need to do to get better. That doesn't change whether you're on the bubble or doing well. It's about being in the moment and accomplishing everything you can in that moment."
Notre Dame begins its chase of a second consecutive ACC Tournament crown Friday night against an ever-so-familiar foe in Duke. The Blue Devils have won the last two NCAA titles, while the Irish own five regular-season victories versus Duke over the last six years, including a 15-10 Notre Dame triumph April 4 in Durham, North Carolina.
Stay tuned. Here we go again.