Feb. 6, 2016
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -
By Leigh Torbin
In its third year together, the core of No. 7 Notre Dame women's lacrosse's attack believes it has figured out how to unlock its goal-scoring potential. Heading into Saturday's season-opener at Jacksonville, one of 12 NCAA championship teams from 2015 that the Irish will face out of their 17 regular-season games, the Irish are ready to put their vast experiences to the test.
The current junior and senior-heavy attack unit truly assembled in the fall of 2013 in particular with the arrival of Cortney Fortunato off of an MVP performance for the United States in that summer's Under-19 World Championships. The spring of 2014 saw a steady stream of elite ACC defenses throw the kitchen sink at Fortunato who was regularly face-guarded, double-teamed and physically jostled. She shared the national rookie of the year award after a 46-goal season, but the Irish still had room to improve.
As a freshman, Fortunato netted nine hat tricks and Notre Dame went 8-1 in those contests. When Fortunato didn't score thrice in 2014? The Irish went just 2-8. The Irish had become too one-dimensional. If Fortunato didn't score, they didn't win.
That ratio improved slightly in 2015. Fortunato's 10 games with a hat trick resulted in a 7-3 mark for the Irish. More significantly, her 10 non-hat trick games saw Notre Dame nearly reach the .500 mark at 4-6.
The onus faced by Fortunato creates space for others. In 2015, Rachel Sexton (37 goals), Heidi Annaheim (27), Grace Muller (18) and Kiera McMullan (12) learned to capitalize on that space. It also played to Fortunato's advantage. Freed from her defensive shackles more frequently, the Long Island native increased her goal count to 56 as a sophomore, netting first-team All-America honors in the process.
The 2016 Irish feature eight returning players who tallied at least 20 points in 2015. Their familiarity with each other's style and the system of fifth-year head coach Christine Halfpenny could propel Notre Dame deep into the NCAA championship come May.
"Once other people started having really great games, our opponents just had to realize that it's not just Cortney," Annaheim said. "Once she got shutout, we had Kiera. We had Rachel. We had Grace (Muller). It's a cool thing that we can even use Cortney when she does get face-guarded to make plays off of that.
The Irish claimed some big wins in 2015 even when Fortunato was taken off of her game by defensive pressure. She did not score a hat trick in Notre Dame's 12-11 overtime win at No. 7 Syracuse, but both Sexton and midfielder Stephanie Toy did score three goals each, propelling the Irish to victory at the Carrier Dome. Facing No. 5 Virginia in Charlottesville during the ACC championship, Fortunato did not score any goals. However, the Irish still knocked off the Cavaliers thanks to multiple-goal games from Sexton and Annaheim.
This blueprint will serve Notre Dame well in 2016 as it aims for loftier standards than merely making the NCAA field for a school-record fifth consecutive season. The formidable unit has even been augmented by adding freshman Nikki Ortega who followed in Fortunato's footsteps by being named all-world at this past summer's Under-19 World Championships.
"You never want a defense to think that you're one dimensional and by shutting off one person you stop the entire offense," Sexton said. "By having seven threats, we are a lot for the defense. We're multi-dimensional now so we're harder for a defense to decide who to take out. If you take Cortney off one day, (McMullan) is going to come in he or Heidi will have a big game. You never really know with us whose day it is."
So long as the ball keeps finding the back of the net, the Irish don't care whose day it is. The team's lofty aspirations in 2016 will be reached if the depth which has been meshing over the past two years forms the sort of seamless attack that foes can't repel.
"Cortney is a huge part of our offense, but we've come into our own," McMullan acknowledged. "We have several attackers who can score and depth off our bench. Cortney will still be a huge focus, but we know how to work around the face-guards and double teams now."
"Over the last three years, we've learned how each other ticks and how to work with one another," added Sexton who has started all 39 games over the past two seasons. "It's something you can only get with experience. We've benefitted from having a strong and consistent core over the last three years."
Sexton's fourth and final year does not start easy. The Irish travelled 1,000 miles on Friday to Florida's first coast. Jacksonville is the three-time reigning Atlantic Sun champions and picked to win the league again in 2016. The Opening Day challenge posed by the Dolphins is real for the Irish. However, complements of increased offensive chemistry, the Irish are prepared to step forward and meet the challenge -- taking the first step in what could prove to be a historic season.
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.