Jan. 15, 2017
By Megan Golden
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The first University of Notre Dame women's lacrosse training trip is officially in the books, following four days of abundant sunshine, team bonding, challenging workouts and fearless competition against the best team in the world.
Notre Dame's goal all weekend was to continue to focus on the "next play" and improve in every situation. Looking back, Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny said her team certainly achieved that goal.
"This was a seamless trip," Halfpenny said. "I pulled the captains aside, and I let them know that this was seamless because of how they helped to organize this team, how they helped to set the expectation and the mentality we were going to take on a training trip we've never done before and in the US Team, a team we haven't played before.
"These experiences will only help to pay dividends for us, support and develop fundamentals, stick to the process and build this winning team."
The weekend consisted of several "firsts" for the program, beginning with the preseason training trip to Bradenton. In the program's 31 years, it had never once brought together all of its student-athletes -- during Christmas break -- to travel together for the purposes of training as a team and preparing for the upcoming season.
Four workouts in three days allowed the team to gel together and build off of their winter break regimen. Team meals, positional meetings and even a quick trip to the beach provided players and coaches with an opportunity to catch up after a long month away from school.
Notre Dame concluded the trip with an exhibition game versus Team USA, the reigning World Cup Champions, marking the program's first matchup versus the national team.
Despite the team's 22-5 loss on Sunday at IMG Academy, the Irish learned invaluable lessons from Team USA.
"The best part of playing them is playing at that speed, you can't worry about mistakes," Halfpenny said. "You have to move on. Press on. Next play. The next play is the most important play. That's really fun, and sometimes you're not even playing an opponent, you're playing yourself. You push your own limits and see how far you can go. The US Team helped us see: How fast are we? How much more can we dig in? How much longer can we keep that ball on the ground to force a turnover?
"The speed -- we're making decisions at top speed. I think that's what makes the US Team, the world's defending champions, the best team in the world."
Senior captains Alex Dalton, Katherine Eilers and Casey Pearsall experienced their first true road trip as leaders of this 30-person team. The trio worked tirelessly in practice and instilled confidence in their teammates as they prepared to take on Team USA.
"I'm super excited about the leadership," Halfpenny said. "I can speak volumes to what Eilers and Pearsall and their fellow teammates -- Grace Muller, E.C. (Fontenot) -- did for us. They brought so much experience and headiness in their games, outstanding examples of how hard Notre Dame can play."
Irish sophomore Samantha Lynch, who had five total points in 2016, scored Notre Dame's first two goals. Juniors Molly Cobb and Sydney Cardozo and freshman Savannah Buchanan each added a goal for the Irish.
Defensively, Eilers collected two ground balls, and sophomore goalie Samantha Giacolone gathered 16 saves. Pearsall recorded four ground balls, one draw control and two caused turnovers on Sunday.
"Casey Pearsall showcased why she's an All-American midfielder, and I'm just excited for her to start on that foot," Halfpenny said.
Muller echoed her head coach, adding that Pearsall was all over the field today.
"Everyone on this team knows they can rely on Casey whenever and with whatever is necessary," Muller said. "(She) displays this through positive affirmation and helping us know that she believes in her team. Knowing that helps everyone relax, understand that we are playing the best team in the world and recognize that there is no reason to be afraid. Her confidence permeates throughout the rest of the team."
The much-anticipated battle between Team USA attack Cortney Fortunato and her Irish teammates proved to be an emotional encounter on the playing field.
Notre Dame's entire team erupted in cheerful applause upon hearing Fortunato's name during team introductions. From that moment onward, she made it difficult for the Irish to root against her.
Fortunato, who competed as one of 25 players on Team USA's roster, led the team in points (five). She scored two goals and collected three assists, donning the red, white and blue on the opposing sideline. Fortunato scored her first goal at the 19:49 mark in the first period and found the net again at the 1:58 mark of the second period.
Halfpenny admitted that she was rooting for the Irish senior throughout the entire game.
"I feel like a pseudo-parent to all of my players," she said. "That might have been that proud mom-slash-coach moment. I can't say I know what her parents feel like, but I know what a coach feels like who's been in that pseudo-position, and it's just overflowing pride for Cortney getting this opportunity and attacking it.
"She showcased her talents. Her vision and her ability was something that was on display today. She cut seams really well, found her teammates really well, and used her speed really well. Being a part of five of their total points is a really big deal when you're playing around all of those incredible attackers. We're so proud of Cortney."
The Irish open the regular season versus Northwestern at 1 p.m. ET on Feb. 5 at Loftus Sports Center.
Megan Golden, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since August of 2016. In her role, she coordinates all media efforts for the Notre Dame women's lacrosse and cross country/track and field programs. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Golden is a 2014 graduate of Saint Mary's College and former Irish women's basketball manager. Prior to arriving at Notre Dame, she worked in public relations with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.