Feb. 26, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - It's so much more than just wearing a blue uniform instead of a white one.
Fans may look at their team playing on the road and just see "Notre Dame" on the left side of the TV score bug instead of the right, hear different cheers, ones pointed against the Irish, and see a different logo in the middle of the field or court, but what goes into being the road team, especially at the collegiate level, goes far deeper than that.
Being the road team at an ACC level is a hopefully vastly-smoother version of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" that the No. 12 Notre Dame women's lacrosse team will get to enjoy for five of its next six contests, beginning Thursday night when the Irish face No. 1 North Carolina, the defending national champion, at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill.
Rightfully perceived as being a disadvantage, there actually are some advantages, particularly for a team like Notre Dame. Staying together under one roof at a hotel, eating all meals together, holding a single team study hall and riding the same buses can help focus a team. Removed from the hubbub of campus life, it can benefit preparation for a team like the Irish which features 10 still-adjusting freshmen on its roster, including several of its key players.
"Sometimes when you take the players away from campus, you can have a better preparation than a home game," head coach Christine Halfpenny said of the road team's advantage. "When you get on the road, it lets you completely focus on the journey, the team and the business of one of the special 16 opportunities that you get over the course of a season to showcase all of what you've put into your sport."
A large part of making things run as smoothly as possible in unfamiliar ACC territory falls to the team's director of operations, Charles Blevins, who has spent the past week compiling meal requests for the team, making sure hotels had final rooming lists, and reminding the team's players ad nauseam to remember to pack important equipment ranging from goggles to socks. The minutia is mindboggling.
Thankfully, Chapel Hill, and then Blacksburg, Va. for Sunday's game at Virginia Tech, are familiar lands for the team's brain trust which helps in picking hotels, restaurants and ensuring the comfort of the 30 travelling student-athletes. Halfpenny lived right up the road from Chapel Hill for three years as an assistant coach at Duke. She is also a Virginia Tech graduate. Blevins is a native of Roanoke, half an hour's drive up I-81 from the home of the Hokies. Rest assured he is looking to having a Macado's sandwich for lunch on Friday and Bull & Bones BBQ that night.
It helped that the team did take a flight together in the fall for an offseason tournament at the U.S. Naval Academy. The Irish saw some top teams at Navy, including North Carolina, and got a taste of road life, but it will be a different story when the bright lights go on for a conference test on Thursday night.
"This fall we had five competitions and we were fortunate to travel with a couple bus trips and an airplane overnight trip," Halfpenny said. "We already got our first taste of the 2014 team travelling and this team did travel well. The team is fun. The team is different every year as you bring in new freshmen, but when you bring in 10, the personality completely changes."
One difference though in being a Notre Dame team on the road vs. other schools? Support. Notre Dame is loved in pockets all over the globe and the Irish never truly walk alone in enemy territory.
"Our fans and families travel incredibly well," Halfpenny said. "We see that all over the country. Because we represent 10 states as a team, we have an opportunity to have a crowd everywhere. Combine that with the Notre Dame clubs across the country, and we always have fans in the stands. It's something special about Notre Dame and always gives us an extra push when an away venue feels like a home crowd."
That support will be needed on Thursday. North Carolina is ranked No. 1 in the nation, the defending national champion, and stands at a perfect 4-0 thus far in 2014.
"Only 16 teams get to play the defending national champs and, for us, it's now a conference opponent too," Halfpenny said. "There's a lot of layers to the motivation. We're psyched. There's not too much I have to say to get the team ready to play the number one team in the country.
"We got to see them in the fall in Annapolis. Both teams had a number of top players out but, athletically, we feel like they're a pretty good match for us. Their top to bottom speed is awesome. I'm excited to see my team get this chance to get credit and let them showcase what they've been working so hard on with our athletic style of play and talent."