May 18, 2017
By John Heisler
It's mid-May and that means it's all business for the University of Notre Dame men's lacrosse program.
That's nothing new for the Irish. They've won at least a first-round NCAA Championship game every year since 2010 (the eight straight victories qualify as the best active streak in the country).
During that eight-year stretch, Notre Dame four times has been to NCAA Championship Weekend, the men's lacrosse version of the final four, and twice to the title game.
The dozen seniors on the 2017 roster have a chance to do something none of their predecessors have done.
They each already have a career of memories, thanks to a run to the championship game as freshmen in 2014 and another Championship Weekend appearance as sophomores when the Irish fell to eventual champion Denver.
This group of seniors already has posted seven NCAA victories--and it has a chance this weekend to tie the Irish record in that category (eight by the 2015 senior class that advanced to Championship Weekend in three of four years).
And so Saturday's matchup with longtime rival Denver takes on even more meaning as the Irish seniors take what they hope will be the second step of potentially four in the postseason.
For Irish senior goaltender Shane Doss, it's the fourth straight season he has played a major role in goal for Notre Dame (dating back to his freshman campaign in 2014 when he started seven midseason games, though Conor Kelly came back to open in net in the NCAA games that year).
Irish coach Kevin Corrigan loves the way Doss has quietly, continuously competed:
"Guys come in and they compete for jobs when they get here," says Corrigan. "But if we were being truthful about the way we were projecting goalies through the years I don't know if we would have seen Shane as a three-year starter and a multi-year All-American. It just wasn't what we saw him as being.
"But when he got here in his very quiet and unassuming way, he competed and won the position and hasn't opened the door a crack to give anybody a chance at it since then. There's no drama around him and what you're going to get from him.
"You don't worry about him coming in and being all whigged out. He just quietly does his thing. Having had guys (in goal) that were (low-key) like that -- Kirk Howell and Scottie (Rodgers) were not but the two Kemp brothers (Joey and John) certainly were -- I don't think there's a personality profile for a goalie. And I don't think anybody thought they had the next `guy' when they got Shane Doss.
"We expected him to compete. He was very unassuming and probably very underrated."
Productivity for Irish senior midfielder (and three-time All-American) Sergio Perkovic has been a given since day one. His size and the speed of his shot helped make him something of a matinee idol for kids who followed the program, if postgame autograph and photo requests are a barometer. As a freshman he scored two or more goals nine times--and it did not hurt that longtime ESPN lacrosse play-by-play announcer Eamon McAnaney (a former Irish player) early on dubbed him the "Motor City hit man."
If the national lacrosse community didn't already know who he was, Perkovic introduced himself quite appropriately with five goals as a freshman in the 2014 NCAA title game against Duke.
Interestingly, Corrigan remembers Perkovic as a very good lacrosse player who also seriously considered football as an option at the college level (he was offered football scholarships by several Big Ten Conference programs):
"Sergio was a football player (tight end and defensive end), and he was viewed by a lot of people as more of a football kid (in terms of his future). He didn't go to a ton of lacrosse events, so he wasn't out there in the recruiting community the way a lot of kids are. There wasn't a lot of recognition of him until his senior year, that summer before his senior year, and what he could be in lacrosse.
"I think he was still waiting for big-time college football offers. My sense was we would have lost him if maybe a Michigan had come in and offered him for football.
"Yet you definitely thought he was a big-time athlete. He's always had that compact shot that he can release quickly."
The Irish have had a long line of outstanding defenders in this decade alone--with Kevin Ridgway, Kevin Randall, Steve O'Hara and Matt Landis all earning at least one first-team All-America scroll from the USILA.
The latest of those is current senior Garrett Epple, a 2017 All-Atlantic Coast Conference pick who has been a mainstay over the years but became Notre Dame's top name among the close defenders following the graduation of Landis, a 2016 Tewaaraton Award finalist and two-time USILA national defensive player of the year.
Epple broke onto the scene late in his freshman year and made his mark with a major check and caused turnover late in a 2014 ACC Championship semifinal match against Maryland. Irish midfielder Jack Near took the ball half the length of the field before his assist to Matt Kavanagh for the game-winner in a 6-5 victory. Two days later Epple and the Irish defeated Syracuse for an ACC crown in their first season in the league.
Epple provides a physical approach to the game--and in many ways looks like he could join Perkovic in a football uniform (Epple was a high school football captain and all-state linebacker) when you see him in lacrosse gear. Like Doss, Epple (he wears number 52, as did Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis) started seven times as a freshman in 2014 and has been in the lineup ever since.
"He's definitely one of our more physical players. He doesn't shy away from contact," says another Irish senior, defensive midfielder Nick Koshansky. "He's more about proper angles, efficiency of movement and just trying to get into guys' bodies. It's worked really well for him."
In fact, in great Fighting Irish tradition (and there's no legitimate suggestion this is going to happen), wouldn't it be interesting to see Perkovic and Epple in Notre Dame football uniforms, much the same as Nick Ossello who exhausted his lacrosse eligibility and then spent a year as a walk-on safety on the 2015 Irish football squad?
And for every Doss, Perkovic and Epple who has become a household name thanks to his play (and to ESPNU), there are plenty of other seniors playing key roles a bit further from the limelight.
Take defender Chris Carter, just for example, who has saw action off the bench in five 2017 contests. In July he is slated to go to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity for three months. He already has accepted a job offer from Microsoft and eventually will be headed to Seattle.
So there are many ways to measure success.
In any event, Doss, Perkovic, Epple, Carter and the other eight Irish seniors this weekend will be returning to the scene of one of the more memorable games from their freshman seasons. Notre Dame in 2014 played at Hofstra in the quarterfinal round against an unseeded Albany team and needed a late comeback to tie the Great Danes before then-sophomore Kavanagh won the game for the Irish in overtime.
It's also fitting that, in a season when the best teams in the country all played more than their share of one-goal games, the Irish and Denver meet again with a final four slot as the stakes. Maybe no recent rivalry in the nation has featured more one-goal games.
Starting in 2011, the two teams have played eight times. Seven of those have been one-goal games, four going to overtime and one requiring three overtimes. The 2017 regular-season meeting March 12 in Denver--an 11-10 Pioneer win--ended when the home team scored a goal as time expired. It's a rivalry such that it's virtually impossible for another to be more closely contested.
The Notre Dame-Denver contest recalls the only other NCAA meeting between these two programs at the 2015 NCAA semifinals in Philadelphia. That one also ended 11-10, also required overtime and the end result overshadowed what may well go down as the most remarkable display of goal-scoring (even in a losing role) in NCAA men's lacrosse history. In that game Perkovic scored five times in a 5:57 window of the fourth period (the last four in a 2:37 span). That would be an amazing accomplishment by a team (especially at the NCAA national semifinal level against a team that ultimately won the title), much less for an individual.
The NCAA has no individual scoring-by-period records to prove it, but it's likely Perkovic did something never before accomplished in NCAA men's lacrosse
ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich called Perkovic's performance versus Denver the top moment of the entire 2015 season.
Looking for more of those sorts of dramatics?
History suggest the Irish and Pioneers could well provide those Saturday afternoon at Hofstra.
The Irish seniors will be there to see if they can stake their claim.
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.