Feb. 16, 2015
Knotted in a 4-4 quagmire with Detroit, the University of Notre Dame women's lacrosse team struggled to find some traction on the Loftus Sports Center turf Sunday afternoon.
Then sophomore attacker Grace Muller slashed through the Detroit defense, turned and planted her feet in front of the crease. Taking a feed from Brie Custis, Muller faked high and then punched in a shot to give the Fighting Irish a 5-4 lead at the 6:42 mark of the first half.
At the 3:16 mark, Muller approached the goal line, snared an amazing feed from Cortney Fortunato, extended and fired in another shot.
It was a one-two punch that decked Detroit.
Notre Dame, ignited by Muller's two goals, torched the Titans for 12 unanswered goals on the way to a 17-5 victory.
Muller finished with four goals as the Irish improved to 2-0. Notre Dame plays its next five games on the road. The Irish return to home turf at noon March 14 when they play Atlantic Coast Conference rival Virginia Tech.
After finishing her freshman season with 10 goals, Muller has burst onto the scene for the Irish this season. She has seven goals in her first two games, and on Sunday she got the Irish on track with her impact goals to jump-start the rout.
"While she was going to be a surprise to the country and our fans, she's not a surprise to our team or the coaching staff," Irish coach Christine Halfpenny said. "We know what Grace brings. She's focused, she executes, she knows her role and she does her job.
"What makes it a little bit eye-popping is because it's very pretty, what she does. She has really worked on her skills since high school."
Muller said she has a better understanding of the college game now than she did as a freshman, and she is in better condition to handle the speed of the college game.
"Now I understand a lot more," Muller said. "Last year I was kind of going crazy in the middle. Now I understand I don't have to cut every five seconds. I can cut one way, wait a couple of seconds and then open up more space for my teammates, and then they will reciprocate and open up space for me.
"I also had a much better fall than I did last year which helped set up a more successful spring. I think our trainer put us in really good shape. Last year I wasn't in this good of shape. That has made it a lot easier to transition into having more success these first two games."
Irish senior defender Leah Gallagher has seen the improvement in Muller while going up against the sophomore attacker in practice.
"Grace can take a really bad pass and she will convert that into a goal," Gallagher said. "She will have two defenders on her, and she will still convert a bad pass into a goal. It's almost too easy for her to change the momentum. I think that's where her impact is showing. It's amazing. She does amazing things for the team and it's great."
Halfpenny said Muller has given the Irish a tremendous boost with her attitude.
"It's pure attitude," Halfpenny said of the reason for Muller's turnaround. "The way this kid lives her life, the way she walks--she has a jive. She has her shoulders back all the time. She has a positive attitude. She knows who she is. For any young woman 18-22 coming into a top 10 team, that's something you have to have, even when the chips are down. That's something I think she's worked on.
"She gives our team so much confidence. When she does score, she's not fazed. She does it with confidence and she owns it. She's not surprised. For having a lot of sophomores out on the field, that's a good thing for us. It's building more confidence that we need, it's building swag that we need. We're really excited."
Muller credited Notre Dame's senior leadership for her development.
"The seniors are so supportive every day," Muller said. "I have to credit the seniors for believing in every single person. I think last year I would get really internal. This year my teammates, especially the seniors ... if I miss a shot, they tell me, 'You'll get the next one.' I'm not getting discouraged. I have to credit the seniors for keeping it positive all the time for everybody.
"We talk about team mentality all of the time. Where we are now is great, but we want to be the best team that we can be at the end of May. I think my teammates have really set me up for success, and I hope I can set them up for success as well. That's the mentality we have, and I think it's really helped so far."
Building confidence in Muller has paid dividends for the Irish.
"I think the main difference in Grace's play from last year to this year is mainly confidence," Gallaher said. "Not only in herself, but the confidence that other teammates have in her. They will feed her the ball, no matter where her stick is, knowing she will handle it and she will bury it, and she will make sure it gets in the back of the net by any means possible. That's really fun to watch."
Gallagher also loves the passion Muller has started bringing to the team this season.
"When Grace is celebrating after a goal or celebrating for a teammate's goal, she celebrates bigger and louder than anybody else," Gallagher said. "I think that's a great spark that she brings, a good energy. The rest of the team is starting to emulate that. It's a beautiful thing to have a bunch of girls cheering for each other on the field. I think that's the biggest change in Grace's play from last year to this year."
Muller's emergence this season as an impact player makes the 11th-rated Irish a dangerous contender for NCAA glory.
"It makes it difficult to scout us," Halfpenny said of having Muller stepping up her game offensively. "You have Cortney Fortunato, and whenever she touches the ball is a major threat. Even off ball, she's a major threat. You've got her, you got Rachel Sexton and Kiera (McMullan), who have been doing a lot of us the last two years, and now we have Grace Muller.
"I don't want to say pick your poison ... but, so far in two games, our attackers have shown us consistency. With that, Grace adds to the mix. Who are you going to take out? Are you going to take Cortney out or are you going to take Grace out? If you take those two out, then it's time for Rachel and Kiera to shine. Then our midfielders ... they haven't even shown us their best yet. They're just getting warmed up. We're pretty excited about all of that."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent