Sept. 23, 2010
In the Land of the Rising Sun, Irish Lacrosse Shines
By: Daniel Byrne
On May 31, 2010, the Notre Dame men's lacrosse team's remarkable postseason run ended in the NCAA tournament. The Irish fell just short of its first national championship at the hands of Duke, 6-5, in overtime.
Unseeded when it entered the tournament with a 7-6 record, the Irish claimed upset victories against No. 6 Princeton, No. 3 Maryland, and No. 7 Cornell en route to the program's first-ever appearance in the national final.
Two short days later following the disappointing loss, the Irish were traveling to Tokyo for six games against international competition.
Under head coach Kevin Corrigan, the men's lacrosse team had enjoyed three previous foreign trips to Ireland, England and the Czech Republic.
"One of the things our student-athletes give up is the opportunity to study abroad." Corrigan says. "This gives our kids a chance to do that. This is an experience that can be very meaningful for them."
Arriving on June 2, the Irish began their nine-day, unforgettable experience.
To become more immersed in the Japanese culture, each player stayed a couple nights with a host family. Dan Schmitt, a senior defenseman and midfielder, was surprised at the living conditions. "It was not what I expected. The houses were very small. The Japanese player I stayed with had a room in the basement that was probably half the size of a dorm room."
Senior defenseman Kevin Ridgway said that he was somewhat uncertain at first about living in a home and not being able to speak the language. "I didn't want to break any cultural rules." On one of his nights with his host family, Ridgway was treated to a sushi dinner that included a helping of crab brains.
The Notre Dame team made an effort to adopt the ways of the Japanese culture that went beyond just consuming the seafood. On its first full day in Tokyo, the Irish took part in a calligraphy class. Using bamboo brushes and rice paper, several Notre Dame players were able to hone their newfound artistic abilities. The class was followed by a traditional tea ceremony. The lacrosse team could relate the procedure to executing a game plan, as the ceremony required specific instructions on how to raise, position, and clean the bowl.
When it was time to play their first game after becoming well acclimated to the Japanese culture, the Irish found it difficult to reclaim the enthusiasm and intensity that had carried them throughout the NCAA tournament.
"It was hard to get upbeat and ready to play after the (championship) loss," senior midfielder David Earl says, "but having lots of people come to watch and having the younger guys get to play was a great experience."
The Irish did in fact come ready to play, registering victories in all six of their contests. Notre Dame defeated the Japan Under-20 team 12-2 and fought hard to claim wins in two contests over the Japan National team by scores of 13-8 and 7-6. The three games were part of the International Friendship Games played at Edogawa City Stadium.
Making the trip to the Friendship Games with Notre Dame was the Loyola (Maryland) women's lacrosse who faced off against the Japanese Women's National team. In addition to the national team games, the Irish faced three college club teams from Japan. These games also proved very favorable for Notre Dame as it outscored their opponents 28-3 in those three victories. The success of the experience of the trip overseas was measured not only by victories but also by community impact. Service and outreach is an integral part of the student-athletes'' time at Notre Dame and that certainly includes the men's lacrosse team. The coaches and players provided a one-hour clinic for 100 Japanese college freshmen. The unyielding focus and concentration of those players caught the eye of the Irish and its head coach.
"(They) couldn't have been more hungry to learn and hear what we had to say," Corrigan says. "They would've stayed eight hours if we let them."
Lacrosse is becoming increasingly popular in Japan with close to 20,000 college level players; however, there are few high school teams and no youth programs for the players to develop their skills.
"It was amazing how committed they are once they start playing," Corrigan says. "Our guys were impressed with their commitment of getting up before school in order to have practice time."
The nine days were not without many memorable times, as Schmitt and (David) Earl recently recalled of the trip.
"My favorite part of the trip was the time that we spent sightseeing," Schmitt says. "It was absolutely gorgeous. I probably never would have had this opportunity and was so happy to have had this experience."
One of the most memorable sightseeing trips the team took was to Kamakura, a coastal city south of Tokyo. The team stood in awe of the Amita-Buddha-Daibutso, more commonly known as the Great Buddha. Surrounded by trees, the distinct figure towers over the sacred grounds and stands nearly 44 feet and weighs 121 tons. A short walk from the Great Buddha is the Hase-Dera Temple. The place of worship offered a breathtaking view of the coastline.
The Irish also got the chance to be sports fans as they attended several baseball games and a training session of a well known but seldom seen Japanese sport -- sumo wrestling.
Earl spoke of the privilege of watching a sumo wrestling workout session. "Not a lot of people get inside the building to watch them train. We got to see a different kind of sport...a different kind of athlete."
The cultural differences of a new country led to both humor and amusement for some of the players. "Trying to translate was hilarious," remembers Andrew Irving, a senior midfielder, "Ordering from McDonalds was really difficult and took about a half an hour." Adding to the fun was fellow senior midfielder Zach Brenneman's observation of his teammate (Kevin) Ridgway, who at 6-6, "walked around and was taller than everyone else."
The Irish returned to the States on June 10.
Kevin Dugan, operations intern for the men's lacrosse program, and a former player under Corrigan, reflected on the development of the players on and off the field while in Japan.
"When you go on trips like this you have a few goals in mind. You want the educational experience," he says. "There is fun and excitement involved being in a new place. It enhances the camaraderie of the team. When I was here, there was nothing better than being abroad with my friends. It was a competitive experience, and they got to develop teammate relationships in a fun way."
Although Notre Dame fared well in Japan, Coach Corrigan, who is entering his 23rd season heading up the program, knows there is much work to be done for the start of the 2011 campaign. "Every year is its own thing. You start all over every year. We have a new team and a new locker room. We know we've got to rebuild and start this team up from the beginning."
Irish lacrosse fans have good reason to hope for a quick rebuilding process with the help of several key-returning players from last year's runner up squad.
Although Scott Rodgers - who was named the Most Outstanding Player of last year's NCAA tournament - has graduated, several players who receiving postseason accolades look to lead this year's squad. Brenneman, Ridgway, and Earl are primed to be threats to every team the Irish face during the upcoming campaign. All three garnered All-America accolades, while Brenneman and Ridgway were named to the NCAA all-tournament team.
Fall practice began on September 6, and the Irish are already hard at work looking to build upon last season's success
Team chemistry always plays a large factor in a season's success. The trip abroad to Japan no doubt strengthened the relationships between the players both on and off the field. Time will tell if that bond will translate to wins in the upcoming season. While preseason polls will not be released until the start of the season in February, the Irish look once again to be among the nation's top teams.
Certainly, Corrigan, his coaching staff and his team will point to June's trip to Japan as the start of preparations for the upcoming '11 campaign. Over the course of nine days, the Irish were exposed to a unique culture and were able to make an impact on the youth of Japan while also strengthening team chemistry and honing their lacrosse skills in an incredible atmosphere. A memorable trip that adds to the incredible college experience the student-athletes have had at Notre Dame.
Details of the men's lacrosse team's trip to Japan were provided through the blog of John Heisler, the Senior Associate Athletics Director for Media and Broadcast Relations at Notre Dame. -ND-