May 22, 2015
When Matt Kavanagh and the University of Notre Dame men's lacrosse team walked off the turf of Denver's Barton Stadium back on March 7, they were dealing with a defeat they were determined not to let snowball into a setback.
Denver outscored the Irish 3-0 in the final quarter and then claimed an 11-10 victory in overtime before a sold-out stadium.
Before the Irish reached the locker room, they were already developing the mindset to punch back.
"We told each other we would probably be seeing this team again in May, and here we are," Irish junior attacker Matt Kavanagh said of facing Denver again on NCAA Championship Weekend. "That loss wasn't a season-changing loss. There was never doubt we were a good team. If anything, that game made us better.
"Sometimes losses are good for a team. You get to work on the things you didn't do right, and you learn from some situations that didn't go your way. It wasn't good that we lost, but we definitely have corrected some mistakes. We learned from that game."
Notre Dame will get a chance to show how much it has learned since that loss in March when the Fighting Irish take on Denver at 1 p.m. (EDT) Saturday on Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field. The winner returns at 1 p.m. Monday to play for the national championship against the winner of the Johns Hopkins-Maryland game.
According to Kavanagh (he was named a first-team All-American Thursday), Notre Dame didn't play "Irish lacrosse" in March. The Irish were wounded by four man-up goals by Denver.
"It was uncharacteristic of us to give up a lead and take penalties," said Kavanagh, a strike force with 27 goals and 24 assists to lead the Irish with 51 points this season.
"When we played Denver, it was our fourth game of the season and it was in Denver in front of a pretty hostile crowd. It was the 50th anniversary of their team, so all of their alumni were back. It was their biggest crowd ever, it was a really big game for them.
"We had it late going into the fourth quarter (leading 10-7), but then we got a couple of bad penalties. We kind of lost our composure at the end. Going into the fourth quarter, we were confident we could win. We played a solid game until the fourth quarter. This game, we've got to play a full 60 minutes. Losing that game helped us in the long run. We know we're capable of playing with them and beating them."
Irish head coach Kevin Corrigan said Denver has a more fluid look to its offense. The Pioneers have developed a more deceptive look as they have meshed through the season.
"If you're doing six different things early in the year, you tend to be a little more robotic in how you stage those things," Corrigan said. "Later in the year you've done it enough that you can flow from one to another. It becomes more of a challenge to recognize what they're trying to do."
While Denver has a different look, the Irish also have honed a sharper, deeper attack.
"We're playing more people," Corrigan said. "We have more depth. Offensively, we've keyed into what our groups like to do and what our personnel groupings like to do and what they're most effective at doing. Defensively, we're communicating a lot better.
"We hurt ourselves in that first game, and they ended up with four man-up goals. That was a big, big part of that game. I think, for us, we said to our guys, it's about maintaining our poise in the midst of things, not fouling and not reacting if we do. If a call is made that we don't like, it's irrelevant if we like it or not. We're man down, and we need to take care of our business there."
Corrigan's No. 1-seeded Irish reached the championship game last season (and in 2010) and were in the 2012 Final Four. The Irish have earned five trips to the Final Four, also including in 2001.
"I think we'll be able to handle the pressure and the atmosphere a little better," Irish defender Matt Landis (also named a first-team All-American Thursday) said of having played on Championship Weekend last season.
"A lot of the guys have been in this situation before, so it should help us. It will give us a good measure of how to control our emotions and our level of excitement so we hit the game not too high or not too low, just at the right level.
"I think the attitude of all the guys on the team is outstanding. We have a great culture in the locker room. Everyone is all about each other. I think the chemistry and cohesion is great.
Obviously, the culture created by Coach Corrigan is the reason for that." Corrigan said the Irish will use their previous Final Four experience to their advantage. "There's no doubt that experience is an advantage, just being able to handle the situation and keep the distractions down," Corrigan said.
"You've got family, you've got people who are excited and everybody has the best of intentions. But for the players and coaches, the key is to stay focused on what you need to get done and still be able to enjoy it. That's important because you play better when you're looser and enjoying the event. Finding that right balance . . . experience helps with that."
As for Kavanagh, the NCAA Final Four drive is to earn a championship trophy for the seniors. "We've been through a lot the last three years," Kavanagh said.
"The seniors have led the way for us and taught us a lot. It would be great to send them out with a win."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent