Feb. 28, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Fast, aggressive, passionate and together is a series of adjectives you will hear Notre Dame head women's lacrosse coach Christine Halfpenny repeat ad nauseam in regards to her team's overarching style and philosophy. It may never come together more overwhelmingly than on Sunday when the fifth-ranked Irish clubbed California, 21-2, in the Loftus Sports Center.
Fast? Notre Dame scored two goals in the first 34 seconds of the game. The Irish led 7-0 after 10 minutes and invoked the running clock with a 10-0 lead merely at the midpoint of the first half. Including the lost time, Notre Dame raced out to a 16-0 lead over the first 25:10 of the game. The Irish have enjoyed a run of at least 8-0 over each of their five games this season, but 16-0 is comfortably the longest of the quintet.
Aggressive? Notre Dame's offense was perhaps its most effective defense. The Irish held the Golden Bears to just three clearances in 10 attempts during the first half. Attacker Cortney Fortunato caused three turnovers - all in the first 15 minutes of the game while fellow attackers Kiera McMullan, Nikki Ortega and Rachel Sexton also caused turnovers. Defensive rock Barbara Sullivan, the ACC's caused turnover leader, only caused one turnover in the game as the ball rarely made its way into the Notre Dame defensive zone complements of the unrelenting pressure applied by Notre Dame's attack and midfield.
Passionate? Perhaps nowhere in women's lacrosse does passion better manifest itself than in fighting for loose balls on draw controls, an area where the team that digs deeper is often rewarded. Notre Dame held a 20-4 edge in draw controls - one shy of the school record of 21, done twice and most recently reached in 2008. Notre Dame controlled each of today's first seven draws, exasperating the fervent pace with which its initial lead came together. Even when Cal broke that game-opening streak, Notre Dame's Alex Dalton immediately smacked the ball away from the Bears, one of the All-American midfielder's two caused turnovers on Sunday.
Together? Notre Dame had 13 players collect a point, 12 cause a turnover and 10 collect a ground ball. Notre Dame scored 18 goals that were not on free position attempts. Of those 18 goals, 16 had an assist as the Irish relentlessly distributed it among teammates looking for the ideal shot. During a 14-4 win over Colorado on Friday night, each of Notre Dame's first nine goals came from different players. On Sunday, Notre Dame had scored six times before first-team All-American Fortunato finally joined the goal scoring column. While standing as one of the nation's top scorers with 19 goals and 29 points on the young season, Fortunato has hardly been Notre Dame's sole source of offense in 2016.
"We've talked a lot about our offense being dynamic and veteran and Cortney does so much off-ball when we go back (to the tape)," Halfpenny said. "For those first six goals, she didn't have a goal. You take a look and her ability to get the ball back (through the three caused turnovers) created a number of those. She assisted the first one. We're not really focused on our point getters, but, I know as a coach when I face an offense that has X amount of goal scorers above X amount of points, it's more difficult to come up with a game plan."
Notre Dame's successful game plan was on display instantly as Sullivan controlled the opening draw, dished it to Fortunato who found Rachel Sexton for a goal just 12 seconds into the game. A mere 22 seconds later, it was 2-0 as Heidi Annaheim controlled the draw, ran down field and fed Casey Pearsall for a goal.
Similarly, Notre Dame's third and fourth goals were scored 11 seconds apart, leaving Cal reeling. Dalton intercepted a pass in the midfield and fed Sexton for a goal at 23:21. Sullivan controlled the ensuing draw and had the ball knocked free from her stick but it went right to Dalton who fed Annaheim for a fast break goal.
The frantic pace continued virtually unabated for the entire first half with the Irish domination of possession time reflected in the 15-3 draw control differential, the 22-4 shot differential and, of course, the 17-1 goal differential. While the Irish defense stopped seven of Cal's clearing attempts in the first half, Notre Dame only attempted four clears of its own - an unusually low number - as the ball seldom reached the Irish end of the field as to require a clearance.
The second half saw the Irish attack more methodically, outscoring the Bears 4-1 as the clock ran freely for the duration of the second stanza and nearly every available player for both teams saw the field.
In all, three Notre Dame players collected at least six points on the day: Sexton (five goals and two assists), Fortunato (three goals and four assists) and Annaheim (three goals and three assists). Ortega scored a hat trick. Fellow freshman Samantha Lynch scored the first two goals of her Irish career, one of them off of sophomore Sydney Cardozo's first career assist. Freshman goalkeeper Samantha Giacolone stopped two of the three shots on net she faced over 50:37 of action before giving way to Nicole Fantozzi for the final 9:23 of the game.
In posting a 5-0 record, with three of the wins coming over teams which made the 2015 NCAA Championship field, the Irish have yielded just 24 goals, an average of just 4.8 per game, while scoring 80 times (16 per game). Although cooled off twice in February by the team's traditional postgame ice cream desserts after 18-goal performances, the sizzling start has been only that - a start - in the eyes of the fifth-year Irish head coach.
"It's a part of the evolution of the season," Halfpenny said. "It's the end of February and we're starting to put some more of the pieces together and focusing on getting to midseason form. We'll enjoy today. We'll enjoy the 5-0 February, but, the reality is, March is coming in hot with Louisville. We're excited about that. This team thrives off of great competition. Louisville is completely underrated by everybody outside of our conference, but I like where we're at a lot."
The matchup with the No. 13 Cardinals is set for 2 p.m. on March 5 at the UofL Lacrosse Stadium. ESPN3 will carry the game live.
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for the Notre Dame women's lacrosse team while serving as the football publicity team's top lieutenant. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor's degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.