May 26, 2014
If Notre Dame's men's lacrosse team is going to reach its sport's summit, it is only fitting given the history between the sides that the Irish will have to step over Duke to reach that pinnacle.
On Monday at 1:00 p.m. in Baltimore, the two teams will meet in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years. The first three all resulted in harrowing losses by the Irish. Notre Dame fell to Duke by a single goal in 2013, two goals in 2011 and, of course, there's the 6-5 overtime loss to Duke in the 2010 championship game, the last time these teams shared this illustrious stage.
Notre Dame and Duke have much in common. Amongst the shared men's lacrosse excellence is that Notre Dame and Duke are the only teams in the country to advance to the quarterfinals in each of the past five years. Notre Dame's three NCAA semifinal appearances since 2010 are exceeded only by Duke.
The teams share the color blue, albeit different shades. The teams share status amongst America's truly elite academic institutions and a model confluence of that academic status and athletic prowess. The teams share a conference in the ACC. The school nearly share a founding year with Duke opening its doors in 1838 and Notre Dame in 1842.
Notre Dame and Duke have shared victories in recent years as the sides are an even 4-4 against each other since the 2010 season.
However, Duke has refused to share the victories when it has mattered most, claiming those three straight wins over Notre Dame in the postseason. The Blue Devils are not expected to share anything with Notre Dame on Monday. The Irish will have to seize the victory to claim their first national championship in men's lacrosse.
In doing so, the Irish hope to reverse a recent trend. In 2010, 2012 and 2013, Notre Dame won the regular season meeting between the teams only to lose in the NCAA Tournament. Could Duke's win over the Irish in April at Arlotta Stadium have reversed the trend for the postseason as well?
One thing the Irish have shown that they can do well during their current run of six straight wins, which has brought the team to the championship's front door, is adjust. Notre Dame lost to Syracuse in ACC play but beat the Orange in the ACC Tournament. Notre Dame lost to Maryland in ACC play but beat the Terrapins in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Does Notre Dame have what it takes to continue this streak and avenge its regular season loss to Duke?
"I think playing them earlier in the season, we can kind of find out what we did well and what we didn't do well," sophomore attack Matt Kavanagh said. "I think (head coach Kevin Corrigan) does a great job of breaking down film. We watch a lot of film and then apply it to the field in practice and the games. I think seeing a team being prepared and seeing what they have already done to us in the first game is going to help us (today)."
Senior captain Stephen O'Hara has played enough lacrosse to know that the team which is facing Duke on what promises to be a balmy Baltimore Memorial Day is hardly the same one that faced those same Blue Devils on April 5 when the last remaining snow banks still lined sections of the Notre Dame campus.
"I just think we're a better team now than we were a few months or weeks ago, so I think the ability for us to grow and get better each day and lead us to this point is going to be the difference," said the first-team All-American and leader of the Notre Dame defense.
"I would agree," echoed Corrigan. "I think Steve just hit it on the head. You hope if nothing else from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, you're getting better and getting a little bit smarter about things. I think that's kind of been our journey this year has been to have some ups and downs but to keep learning and progressing through all of it. I think that's what we've done and why we're playing our best lacrosse right now."
Today, Notre Dame and Duke are set to meet for the ninth time since 2010. With four wins apiece over those first eight games, and a demonstrated history of regular season meetings proving irrelevant in May, both sides fully expect to be hanging a banner back on campus to commemorate their victory on Memorial Day 2014.
If that victor is indeed the Fighting Irish, the team would have rattled off seven consecutive wins after starting the year 6-5, bountifully displaying the proverbial heart of a worthy champion on a run the lacrosse community would recall for years to come.