May 13, 2018
By John Heisler
It’s actually a tribute to Notre Dame’s recent success in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship that Irish players and coaches didn’t know quite how to react or exactly what to say late Sunday afternoon in their home locker room.
Irish coach Kevin Corrigan and his staff had been used to making travel arrangements and signing up for NCAA conference calls for the quarterfinal weekend by now. After all, the last time Notre Dame didn’t move on to the second weekend came in 2009—in the pre-Arlotta Stadium days. That was also the last time the NCAA assigned the Irish the (maybe unlucky) number-seven seed.
A Denver team that now stands 13-3 made that seed a non-factor—doing Sunday what the Pioneers could not two months ago when the regular-season meeting of these programs resulted in an 11-9 Irish triumph.
This time the visitor flipped the script, parlaying hat tricks by Ethan Walker (he had five goals in the teams’ regular-season meeting) and Austin French into a 9-7 victory.
This wasn’t your average unseeded first-round opponent. Denver only a week ago was ranked third in the Inside Lacrosse poll until its 8-3 loss to Georgetown in the Big East title game. Bill Tierney’s squad boasted the most productive face-off man in NCAA lacrosse history in Trevor Baptiste and this week’s top-rated defense in the NCAA.
Combine that with a goaltender, junior Alex Ready, who found himself reinserted into the starting lineup for the first time since losing his job in South Bend in March. His 10 saves Sunday played a key role in advancing the Pioneers to a quarterfinal matchup Saturday with second-seeded Albany at Hofstra. Two of those saves--on shots by Pierre Byrne and Ryder Garnsey--in the first five minutes seemed to set a tone.
It marked the second straight season and third time in four seasons that the Irish dropped from the NCAA bracket at the hands of Denver. This time the Pioneers did it by coming from behind to score the final three goals of the game in the last 12 minutes.
On a pleasant afternoon at Notre Dame that began with temperatures in the 60s and warmed as the sun broke through, Denver delivered an early message with a pair of goals in the opening 2:51. By then Baptiste had pushed his career faceoff win total against Notre Dame to 100.
For a while, Garnsey was something of a one-man gang—notching each of the first four Notre Dame goals that enabled his Irish to rally from a 4-1 second-period deficit to trail only 5-4 midway through the third quarter.
“He was a warrior out there today,” said Tierney. “He takes a beating and keeps on coming.”
In the first half, Denver converted five times on seven shots on goal. Ready made saves on five of Notre Dame’s eight shots on net.
Denver junior Dylan Gaines, the Big East defensive player of the year, had been shadowing Irish sophomore midfielder Bryan Costabile (the ACC Championship MVP) much of the day—but Costabile finally broke through with 1:13 remaining in the third period to tie the game 6-6 on a skip pass from Brian Willetts.
Then 3:22 into the final period Costabile gave the Irish their one lead of the day—and yet it lasted only 15 seconds.
Give Denver credit for scoring twice (goals by Walker and French) in a 1:11 span to regain the advantage. They clinched it with a Colton Jackson goal at 4:04.
While the Irish did not feel like the faceoff game proved a monstrous factor (Denver claimed 14 of 20 overall), the Pioneers definitely benefited from the extra late possessions provided when Baptiste won eight of his final nine attempts at midfield.
Meanwhile Ready made a big save on Garnsey at the 5:08 mark with the Irish trying to tie it—and he made another on Costabile with about a minute remaining on what proved to be the final gasp for the home squad.
The Irish had dug deep to outscore Denver 5-1 over a 20-minute stretch that extended into the final period. But the Pioneers had enough left to close it out.
Tierney suggested after the game that defense was an early focus coming off the three-game stretch in which Notre Dame had averaged 16 goals per outing.
“We just hoped to keep it close early,” he said.
The Denver coach also liked his play in net—where Ready made 10 saves while allowing the seven goals. The Pioneers countered that with only a dozen shots on goal, but Notre Dame freshman Matt Schmidt managed to stop just three of those.
“It’s one of the rare games where we had more saves than goals allowed,” said Tierney.
Corrigan sensed early that it would be a slower, low-possession contest.
“There was a big discrepancy in the goals that went in versus shots on cage. You’ve got to make plays.
“When you have your chances you’ve got to finish them. We just didn’t make enough of those plays today.”
These are two programs used to enjoying home cooking on the first weekend of the NCAA Championship.
This marked the eighth consecutive season Notre Dame (finished in 2018 at 9-6) played host to a first-round game as a top-eight seed (wins over Penn, Yale, Detroit, Harvard, Towson, Air Force and Marquette in the previous seven).
It was the first time since 2012 that Denver did not earn one of those top-eight seeds and open at home. In that same seven-year span beginning in 2011, the Pioneers posted first-round home wins versus Villanova, Albany, North Carolina, Brown and Air Force (losing only at home to Towson in 2016).
Since Tierney came to town in 2010, the Pioneers now have won 14 NCAA games. In that same time period, Kevin Corrigan’s Irish also have won 14.
This was a matchup historically more fitting of a later round of play.
And so it was left for Corrigan to offer some consolation to his charges after it ended:
“I feel like all of you do right now—I did not expect to be in this situation. I’m sorry what we did in the last two hours wasn’t enough.
“This team showed such great character this year to be as resilient as we were with all we went through. I appreciate that, I know how hard that is.
“We just didn’t get it done with our performance today. I wish there was something I could say that would make this feel differently, but it’s not that way.”
Senior associate athletic director John Heisler has been following Notre Dame athletic fortunes since 1978.