May 21, 2017
By John Heisler
Conventional wisdom suggested that fans of the University of Notre Dame and Denver men’s lacrosse teams could have spent the first 55 minutes of the game tailgating in the parking lot and shown up to see the contest decided at the 11th hour.
That’s been the recent tradition between these two elite programs—seven one-goal games among the last eight, four of those overtime affairs and one requiring three overtimes. The two squads had combined for seven NCAA Championship Weekend appearances since 2011.
There was no reason to think this 2017 NCAA Championship quarterfinal match Saturday at Hofstra would be any different considering the two teams played a one-goal regular-season game in March and they were the two closest-seeded squads remaining (Notre Dame fourth and Denver fifth) in the bracket.
But it was.
On an overcast and pleasant 63-degree Long Island day, the Pioneers dominated time of possession from start to finish in front of 10,117 fans. That paved the way for a 16-4 Denver triumph that sends the winners (13-3) on to Championship Weekend in Boston.
The Irish (finished at 9-6) played in the quarterfinals for the eighth straight time (the best active streak in the nation)—but they couldn’t move past that stage after scoring a season-low total for goals and permitting a season-high figure.
No one playing Denver can be overly confident about winning the face-off battle against Pioneer ace Trevor Baptiste who won 19 of 24 of those in the March meeting of those same two teams and was 62 of 92 in his career against Notre Dame.
Yet the Irish had to be invigorated when P.J. Finley pushed the ball past Baptiste on the opening faceoff and Garrett Epple picked up the first of his team-high seven ground balls. Notre Dame’s senior class had not beaten Denver, and the Irish veterans thought this would be the day to reverse that streak. Plus, they had vivid memories of their last time playing at Hofstra against Albany in the 2014 NCAA quarterfinal round when Matt Kavanagh’s overtime goal won it.
The Pioneers had three early turnovers and did not manage a shot in the first five minutes—and a bit more than three minutes into the contest senior captain Sergio Perkovic found junior attack Mikey Wynne just to the left of the cage for an easy dunk and Notre Dame led 1-0.
Denver rebounded with two goals before the opening period ended—but those were the only shots on goal for the Pioneers in the opening 15 minutes. The Irish forced five turnovers, outshot their opponent 7-5 and there was every indication this one was headed toward a typical Notre Dame-Denver finish.
But it wasn’t.
Baptiste went to work. He won all 13 face-offs in the second and third periods combined (and 20 in a row overall after Finley won that first one). That equated to a Denver advantage of 25-2 in shots over those middle 30 minutes. By halftime the Pioneer advantage was 8-1 and after three periods it was 13-2. The second-period shots ended up 14-0 in favor of Denver. The winning goaltender, Alex Ready, didn’t have to make a save in either the second or third period (he had four overall).
The Pioneers scored four goals over one 5:21 span in the second period and notched 11 in succession overall after Wynne’s early tally.
“We need to take the simple play that’s in front of us,” Irish coach Kevin Corrigan told his squad at halftime. “It’s not going to be some miraculous thing that happens the second half. We need to do what we do. It’s all simple things. It starts with good ground ball play, being poised defensively, clearing the ball, just simple stuff.
“We’re going to have to be aggressive offensively, but we can’t force things so we’re trading two-minute possessions for 15-second possessions. Be aggressive when we have numbers and then settle down and make them work a little bit and get to what we do best. One play at a time. We’re not going to score three goals on any one play. Keep your focus, believe in what we’re doing, play hard and go.”
But Denver scored the first three goals of the third period until a second Wynne tally marked Notre Dame’s first in more than 37 minutes. From there the Pioneers scored five straight. The final two goals of the game came by Wynne (for the sixth hat trick of his season) and Sergio Perkovic.
Irish senior goaltender Shane Doss came into the event with 59 career NCAA saves, but he managed only seven Saturday until Owen Molloy took his place early in the final period (Denver held a 33-11 edge in shots at that point). Perkovic came in with 20 career NCAA goals, but he didn’t take his first shot until the opening minute of the final period.
Brendan Collins and Brendan Gleason, the Irish offensive stars from a week ago in the first round against Marquette, this time combined for a single shot on net. Ryder Garnsey, who had two goals and four assists versus the Pioneers in March, this time had one assist and one shot on goal.
The Irish never once used it as an excuse or even a factor, but Notre Dame’s waning health down the stretch affected the contributions of Perkovic and Garnsey, as well as senior captain and short-stick middie Nick Koshansky who had foot surgery Tuesday.
The rankings coming into the game were virtually identical (Notre Dame fifth by the USILA and seventh by Inside Lacrosse—with Denver exactly the reverse). The result was not—other than the fact the Pioneers finished with the same number of goals as the Irish had shots.
The Irish actually did some good things from a numbers standpoint on defense, playing a big part in 18 Denver turnovers (11 caused by Notre Dame, five by Epple). But none of that translated on the scoreboard. It only seemed as if the Irish played defense all afternoon.
Denver coach Bill Tierney called it a “perfect game” on the part of his squad. Corrigan referred to it as an “epic fail” on the Notre Dame end.
There was little to say in an ultra-quiet Notre Dame locker room, mostly because few there had any perspective on a game like that (the combined career losses for the senior class had been by an average of 2.5 goals and the veterans had never fallen by more than eight). If these Irish had lost games, they’d still gone into most of those with a chance to win in the final period. But not this time.
The history book suggested this most resembled a 21-5 NCAA first-round loss at Loyola 20 years ago. Wynne and other Notre Dame seniors-to-be will have to wait until 2018 to try to break a six-game losing streak against Denver, the longest since that same Loyola program won 10 in a row from 1982-2000.
“It just might be one of those days, I honestly don’t even know what to think about it at this point,” said Corrigan to his players. “We just didn’t play well—that’s all of us. We have no one to blame. I’m sorry we’re here.
“I love you guys. I’m heartbroken for the seniors that this is your last game. I hope it doesn’t change what you think because for four years you competed at the highest level every single day and in every single game.”
As music from a joyous Denver locker room began wafting into the Irish quarters, a handful of Irish seniors and others offered some final thoughts.
Perkovic called his time in South Bend “the most amazing four years of my life.”
The memory banks of those seniors—44 combined wins, seven in NCAA play, over four years--likely will prefer to skip the final deposit.
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.