May 12, 2017
By John Heisler
While the sport of lacrosse spreads like wildfire nationally, the NCAA Division I men's collegiate version sometimes feels like a small circle of friends who mostly know each other like the backs of their hands.
That's never more apparent than in May when the NCAA Championship arrives and each program has to put all its marbles on the table.
And that's why, even for a Marquette program only in its fifth season of varsity competition, its Sunday trip to South Bend for a first-round game against fourth-seeded Notre Dame contains an intriguing list of backstories.
--These two teams have met only five times beginning in 2013 (the first year Marquette fielded a team), and Notre Dame won all five of those games. Yet the 2016 regular-season meeting at Arlotta Stadium required overtime before the Irish won 8-7--and the 2017 regular-season game four and a half weeks ago at Arlotta Stadium (in Notre Dame's lone midweek outing) produced an 11-10 Irish victory on Sergio Perkovic's career-high sixth goal of the afternoon with 25 seconds to go.
--So, as well as these teams know each other, Sunday's action figures to feature a real chess match between coaches Kevin Corrigan and Joe Amplo as they make decisions on what strategies to change (or not) from their first meeting April 11.
--Both Notre Dame and Marquette have some interesting connections to defending NCAA champion North Carolina:
1. A year ago an upstart Marquette program upset 2015 NCAA champion Denver 10-9 in the Big East Championship (ending the Pioneers' 22-game home-field win streak) and earned not only its first spot in the NCAA bracket but also the number-six national seed and a first-round home game.
2. The Marquette opponent in that home game? It was North Carolina, a team that apparently barely made the bracket thanks in part to a late-season turnaround that began in late April when the Heels came from behind to defeat top-ranked Notre Dame in Chapel Hill.
3. Marquette lost that first-round game 10-9 to North Carolina--and a week later those same Tar Heels knocked off Notre Dame in the quarterfinals in Columbus, Ohio, on their way to the NCAA crown the following weekend.
4. This year North Carolina came to South Bend April 22 with a .500 record and needing a victory to secure eligibility for NCAA selection. That did not happen, with Notre Dame winning 14-13. That meant the Heels went into the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship a week later needing two victories and the title to ensure they were eligible for selection (this is the first year the ACC was no longer an automatic qualifier for the bracket). And Carolina did just that, defeating top-ranked Syracuse by a goal in the semifinals and then defeating Notre Dame in the title game. That earned the Heels a first-round road game at eighth-seeded Albany Saturday night.
5. Meanwhile, Marquette found itself in a similar situation. The Golden Eagles found themselves a game below .500 heading into the Big East Championship, needing a pair of victories and the title to earn an automatic berth. Marquette did just that, defeating second-ranked Denver 11-8 in the semifinals (after losing to the Pioneers by eight goals a week earlier in Milwaukee) and then knocking off host Providence 10-9 in the title game. That sent the Golden Eagles to South Bend for Sunday's matchup.
--Amplo is one of two coaches on the five-member NCAA Men's Lacrosse Committee (Richie Meade of Furman is the other) which means in some form he helped create and signed off on the bracket that sent his team to South Bend. Actually, the matchup was no surprise since the committee tries to avoid first-round flights as often as possible--so the logic of pairing the Irish and Golden Eagles in the first round made sense.
--Old-school fans probably think of Al McGuire and Digger Phelps when they think of Notre Dame and Marquette squaring off, dating back to the days when those programs were two of the best of a small number of independent men's college basketball programs in the country.
--Irish fans will see a Marquette team that won't often beat itself. The Golden Eagles' top national statistical ranking is in turnovers per game where they rank fifth (11.33 per contest). By contrast Notre Dame is at 12.54 to rank 24th.
--The most popular side story for Sunday revolves around Notre Dame's health. Key figures Sergio Perkovic, Ryder Garnsey and P.J. Finley all sat out Notre Dame's final regular-season outing at Army, with their roles Sunday to be determined.
--Not so many years ago Irish teams benefitted from a guaranteed western bid into the NCAA bracket. These days two consistent bracket presences have been Denver (the 2015 champion) and Notre Dame (national semifinals in 2001, 2012 and 2015 and finalist in 2010 and 2014). This year a team from the "west" is guaranteed a spot on Championship Weekend in Boston since the Notre Dame-Marquette winner will meet the Denver-Air Force winner in the quarterfinals next Saturday at Hofstra.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.