May 28, 2010
By Kevin Scheitrum
BALTIMORE - Goalies of Scott Rodgers' ability don't think. They plan. They plan, they see and they react. But they don't think. The brain, as they say, just gets in the way.
But when Rodgers, Notre Dame's honorable mention USILA All-American goalie, went out to practice the week of May 2 with his team sitting at 7-6 and feeling like only an act of great generosity on the part of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee would continue their season, a few thoughts entered his head as rubber welts-in-waiting traveling at double the speed limit pelted his limbs.
"That was the most awkward thing," Rodgers said with a laugh. " I'm taking shots, and it's like, 'are we not gonna get in? What are we doing there?'"
"It was exam week, too, so that was real tough," said senior midfielder and fellow honorable mention All-American Grant Krebs.
Notre Dame had lost four of its last six games. Sure, the last one, a 12-6 drubbing at home, came to then-No. 2 Syracuse. Another came to perennial power Georgetown. But the previous two came to Villanova and Rutgers, after an earlier pair to Drexel and Fairfield - none of whom qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
But, Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan told his team, the Irish would practice that week. Hard. And in case the Selection Committee did decide to look past the six losses and target the wins over Duke, Loyola and Denver and the fact that the Irish had climbed as high as No. 2 in the polls before falling out, they'd be ready.
And when the announcement echoed out of the locker room TV's on May 9, they were.
"The atmosphere [in the locker room] was electric," Krebs said. "Guys were super-happy to be in, especially with the draw we got with Princeton. We thought we matched up well. ... We were just excited to get into the tournament...A lot of the guys really didn't think we were gonna get in."
Since that loss to Syracuse - the Irish's second of the season in South Bend, after going undefeated at home since 2005 - Notre Dame hasn't lost. Using a defense anchored by Rodgers (3rd nationally with a 7.74 goals-against average, sixth in save percentage at .586) in net, fellow honorable-mention All-American Kevin Ridgway on close defense, they held No. 6 seed Princeton and No. 3 seed Maryland to five goals in consecutive weeks.
And, in a brand-new conference that features a 10-time (and until the Orange took a loss in the first round to Army, two-time defending) national champ in Syracuse and one of the most successful programs in college lacrosse history in Georgetown, it's the team with only one semifinal appearance in its history that's representing the Big EAST in Baltimore.
And it's the team from far outside of the usual lacrosse power regions, bringing the Midwest to the mecca of the sport, that's showing how much the game has grown.
"You talk about parity every year, but these guys prove it," said D-I Men's Lacrosse Committee Chair Tim Pavlechko. "It's great for the game."
No team still alive has allowed fewer goals in this Tournament. But what makes the Irish so dangerous to a Cornell team looking to drown its own demons from an OT finals loss last year, is just how important losing was this year to Notre Dame's success.
Last year, Notre Dame rumbled to a 15-0 record through the regular season, going 5-0 in the GWLL, a conference it had begun to place in its back pocket, and entering the NCAA Tournament as the only undefeated team.
The Irish took their first loss a week later.
Against an unseeded Maryland team, seventh-seeded Notre Dame scored just three goals, falling 7-3 and finishing the season at 15-1. The Irish players - at least those who decided to watch the rest of the Tournament - then watched four teams they hadn't seen all year reached the final weekend.
Before the Tournament began, the Irish had last played a ranked opponent on Mar. 28, when they beat North Carolina to open up at 4-0. Eleven more games followed against a string of teams that crumbled under the Irish, with Notre Dame putting up a 122-61 goal differential - double its opponents - in that stretch.
From those 11 teams, only one - Villanova, who finished the regular season at 9-5 but reached the Tourney after becoming the first No. 4 seed to win the CAA Championship - made it to the final 16.
"We were playing GWLL teams - no knock to them - but they weren't the tough competition that the Big EAST has," All-American midfielder Zach Brenneman said.
This year brought that conference switch to the Big EAST, a seven-team league that featured four teams who had made the Tourney in either 2009 or 2008 or both, not to mention a schedule that featured Duke, in Durham; Loyola, in Baltimore; Fairfield, in Texas; Drexel inside and Villanova just outside Philly; Georgetown in D.C. and Syracuse at home.
The Irish won early. The win over Duke catapulted them to the top-3 in the country in some polls. Wins over Penn State and Loyola, both ranked at the time, solidified Notre Dame's case for title contention - that this year, be ready.
Then came the losses. Drexel welcomed Notre Dame to the Big EAST with a 7-6 OT upset. Fairfield hammered the point home with a 10-8 win in Houston. And suddenly, the Irish began to learn just how effective conference play can be at tearing down dreams and conjuring out flaws.
The Irish would go on to win two more, taking down Denver and rival Ohio State. Then came the losing streak.
And then, of course, came the week of purgatory, with the Irish stuck between the faint possibility of what could be and a season that could have been. And in that week, Rodgers and Brenneman and the rest came together to demand more. To make good on the opportunity if it were to come down.
"We came together and said we need to fix something," Rodgers said. "We shouldn't have been losing. We thought, we all go down together, so we have to start working hard, every day in practice."
That hasn't stopped. And neither have the Irish. And when they take the field on Saturday at 4 p.m., watch them. Watch them play like a team that understands what it means to play against the nation's best. Watch them play, Rodgers hopes, like a team that belongs with the nation's best.
"Last year, going into the playoffs game, and you knew who Maryland is, still, but we weren't as battled-tested last year," Rodgers said. "We weren't as confident as we were going into this postseason, knowing we battled teams like that ones we were going to play."
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