May 13, 2017
By John Heisler
John Sexton is not the University of Notre Dame men’s lacrosse player who fires balls at 100 or more miles per hour at opposing goaltenders. That’s senior two-time All-America midfielder Sergio Perkovic.
Sexton is not the guy in net who anchors the almost always dependable Irish defense. That’s senior veteran Shane Doss.
He’s also not the veteran, physical defender who sets the tone for what the Irish do on the defensive end. That’s senior All-Atlantic Coast Conference choice Garrett Epple.
But don’t underestimate the role Sexton plays for Kevin Corrigan’s club as a long-stick midfielder and defender.
There may be no player in America who consistently qualifies as a more prickly thorn in the sides of opponents.
A junior from Sudbury, Massachusetts, Sexton often plays on the wing on face-offs and he is as good a groundball player as the Irish have on their roster.
He’s physical enough to make himself a pesky presence as a defender.
And he wields his long stick impressively enough that he already has a long track record of successfully separating opposing players from the ball.
In one case this season against Virginia, Sexton caught up to a Cavalier offensive player and seemingly took the ball away from him in mid-air.
Another time against Ohio State, he left a whole group of Buckeyes looking for the ball on the ground long after he’d pilfered it, headed the other direction and ended with a shot on goal.
“He got a ground ball and literally for two seconds everybody is looking for the ball because they can’t figure out how it could have been snatched up and gone down the field,” says Irish head coach Kevin Corrigan.
“He made another play against Ohio State where he made the check, got the ground ball, cleared it himself, drew a penalty, gave it to somebody else (Ryder Garnsey), got it back and scored (to give the Irish a 9-5 third-period lead in an eventual 12-7 victory over the unbeaten and fourth-rated Buckeyes).
“That’s everything one guy can do on one play.”
It’s safe to say no one looks forward to being pursued by Sexton, who almost always seems to find his man and make his play.
After All-ACC and second-team USILA All-America honors n 2016, he has done his job well enough this spring to earn All-ACC recognition again and also earn a slot on the 2017 ACC Championship all-tournament team.
Check the Irish stat sheet and Sexton is the team leader in ground balls (43) and caused turnovers (20, including a season-high four against North Carolina in the ACC title game).
And don’t tell him he can’t play both ends of the field—he has seven career goals, including in consecutive 2017 games against Ohio State, Syracuse (for a 4-3 Irish lead) and Duke, plus another last Saturday at Army.
Sexton was never much of a stranger to the Notre Dame campus. His cousin Jon Harvey played for the Irish from 1998-2001 (including on the ’01 team that went to the NCAA final four) and his sister Rachel played midfield for Notre Dame from 2013-16
Adds Corrigan, “He’s not the most physically imposing guy, but he’s built himself up to be a really strong solid guy. He’s kind of the Irish strong man—and he’s got this relentless drive that makes him different.
“When we first saw him play he was everywhere on the field – he has a tendency to show up like that. He has a unique ability to get ground balls. But it’s his relentless that you notice more than anything else.”
Corrigan remembers running into Sexton in the team hotel the evening after the Irish dropped a one-goal Sunday afternoon game at Denver—Notre Dame’s first loss of the 2017 season.
“He was going down to work out because he was disappointed in the way we played—he just wanted to flush it a little bit. That told me something about him.”
Irish assistant coach Gerry Byrne remembers watching Sexton battle Garnsey in the Philly Challenge summer lacrosse all-star event back when neither of the two were committed to the Irish. In overtime Garnsey prevailed with a left-handed goal.
A week later the two squared off at a Harvard prospect day—and this time Sexton held Garnsey off the scoreboard.
A month ago when the Irish and Marquette met in the regular season, Sexton contributed a pair of ground balls and caused two turnovers in the one-goal Notre Dame victory.
The stakes are higher Sunday on the first weekend of NCAA Championship play, and Sexton figures to be ready, considering his 23 career ground balls and 11 caused turnovers in his first two seasons (five games) of NCAA play.
“John really does his damage in those unsettled transition situations when the guy with the ball is really not an offensive guy, he’s just looking to throw it to the next guy,” says Byrne.
“That’s when John is like a shark in the water. He senses that moment.”
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.