Feb. 25, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
It is hard to argue with the synopsis this week from Inside Lacrosse that the No. 5 Notre Dame women's team, currently 3-0 on the year with all three wins coming over teams that competed in the 2015 NCAA Championship, "has had the best start of 2016 of any DI team."
The Irish, who play host to both Colorado (Friday night) and California (Sunday afternoon) this weekend, have not only won each of their contests to date but have done so in convincing fashion. Combining its prowess in the offensive, defense and midfield portions of the field, Notre Dame has generated a scoring run of at least 8-0 during each contest this year, stymying its trio of high-caliber foes.
Opening on the road against three-time defending Atlantic Sun Conference champion Jacksonville, the Irish led just 3-2 midway through the first half before rattling off 11 unanswered goals to invoke the running clock and cruise to an 18-5 victory.
Returning home to face No. 15 Stanford in what has grown into a tightly-contested rivalry, the Irish found themselves trailing the Cardinal, 6-3, with 20 minutes left to play. Not to worry, freshman Nikki Ortega set up senior Rachel Sexton for a goal and the Irish began to flow, scoring eight straight times to take an 11-6 lead in what became a 13-9 win.
A week later, in the ACC opener, No. 9 Boston College took a quick 2-1 advantage 3:25 into the game on a pair of free position goals. Undeterred, Notre Dame tallied each of the next 10 markers, and 13 of the next 14 overall, rolling to a 14-4 win.
Some of the individual components of these runs stood out nationally when the first batch of NCAA statistical leaders was posted on Wednesday.
Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny hangs her head on a zealously aggressive defense which plays with an opportunistic passion. Notre Dame has led its conference in caused turnovers each of the past three seasons and ranked among the top 10 nationally each of the past four years.
Nothing has changed for the 2016 Irish which leads the nation in caused turnovers at 16.67 per game. Leading the charge is of course Tewaaraton Award finalist Barbara Sullivan who is third in the nation at 3.67 caused turnovers per game -- a sum enhanced by her school-record-tying seven against Stanford. Also ranking in the top 10 nationally from the Irish defensive unit is Brie Custis. The rangy converted midfielder is eighth nationally forcing 3.00 per game.
The aim of Halfpenny's tactical philosophy, however, is best evidenced in who ranks fifth in the ACC in caused turnovers and 24th nationally -- first-team All-American attacker Cortney Fortunato. Although her position leads to fewer defensive opportunities, Fortunato regularly attacks opposing defenders who have the ball attempting to start a clearance. Ranking third on her team with seven caused turnovers, Fortunato is more than simply one of the country's elite scoring threats.
Although most of the components of Notre Dame's 2016 offense have been in place since the 2014 season, Fortunato's freshman year did not produce incredible team scoring totals. With the national freshman player of the year facing the crux of elite defenses, the coordination around her did not allow for the ball-movement to create clean shooting space.
The Irish have figured this out in 2016, evidenced by the team ranking third in the nation with 9.00 assists per game. For comparison's sake, with much of the same personnel, the 2014 Irish amassed 105 assists for 19 games (5.53 per game) and the 2015 Irish totaled 111 assists in 20 games (5.55 per game).
With the season just three games old, 10 Irish players have recorded at least one assist, seven have multiple assists and four (Fortunato with six, Casey Pearsall with five, Ortega with four and Sexton with three) are averaging at least one assist per game.
Notre Dame has found out that the more the ball moves on offense, generally, the more it ends up in the back of the net.
While the Irish attack has diversified thus far in 2016, there is no mistaking that Fortunato is the main component. Fortunato ranks second in the nation with her 19 points on the year (13 goals and six assists). Fortunato leads the ACC and stands fifth nationally with her 6.33 points per game.
Fortunato leads the ACC with 4.33 goals per game. She has scored at least four goals in each of the three games and has already been named the ACC's Offensive Player of the Week twice.
Since the Long Islander arrived on campus, the Irish are 18-4 when Fortunato records a hat trick and 6-14 when she does not. Notre Dame is 3-0 in 2016 with Fortunato recording a hat trick each time. Suffice to say, it is a trend Notre Dame hopes to see continue against a loaded schedule which includes nine games against 2015 NCAA Championship participating teams in March and April alone, prior to likely facing as many as three more in the 2016 ACC Championship.
One of just two new starters for the Irish in 2016, freshman goalkeeper Samantha Giacolone has been the prospect the Irish anticipated off of her stint this past summer as the starting goalie for the United States Under-19 team at the World Championships.
Despite facing the fire power of three NCAA-caliber foes, Giacolone ranks 10th nationally with a .550 save percentage and 12th with a 6.00 goals against average.
Giacolone's crowning achievement to date, one which earned her this week's ACC Defensive Player of the Week accolade, was the .765 save percentage she recorded against Boston College, stopping 13 of the Eagles' 17 shots on goal. The 13 saves were the most by an Irish goalkeeper in three years. The four goals against were the fewest tallied by Boston College against any foe in five years.
A goalkeeper who makes big stops, playing behind a relentless defense which causes turnovers by the bushel, feeding the ball through a swift midfield to a diverse attack keyed by one of the nation's elite goal scorers? All of the parts have united for the Irish through a challenging opening three games. If these components continue to work so succinctly, they could all be marching together very deep into the month of May.
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.