March 3, 2014
BLACKSBURG, Va. - When the Notre Dame women's lacrosse team arrived at its gate at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport on Sunday afternoon following its 18-9 win over Virginia Tech, a flight to Washington's Dulles International Airport had yet to depart before the team's flight to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
As the team's travelling party waited patiently, mostly studying, the United Airlines gate crew boarded the flight to Washington, calling all five zones, making a last call for all passengers and finally closing the door to send the plane on its way.
As the digital signage switched from Dulles to O'Hare, a woman seated near the team panicked. While the plane was being pushed back from Gate 2, terror gripped her as she leapt from her seat upon the realization that he was missing her flight. The woman pleaded in vain with the helpless United staff to stop the departing flight and hastily left the gate area in a desperate quest to find a new way to her ultimate destination. The Irish players and staff along with other Chicago-bound passengers observed in bewilderment over how the woman had missed the many boarding announcements and allowed the plane to leave without getting onboard.
Twice on Sunday, the Irish had allowed the Hokies to make the game competitive after Notre Dame had opened a sizeable lead. In both instances, unlike the unfortunate traveller, the young Irish squad demonstrated the focused mettle that prevented the team's first ACC win from flying away right out from under them.
After running out to a 7-2 lead midway through the first half, the Hokies scored three of the next four goals, finally closing to within three goals at 8-5 with 3:56 left before the break. Notre Dame responded with three goals in a 1:38 span to prevent Virginia Tech from maintaining that momentum and giving the Irish an 11-5 halftime cushion.
The home standing Hokies came out of that break with a flurry. Three straight goals against cut the ND lead to three goals at 11-8. Again, the Irish would not let the game escape from their grasp, scoring six goals in a row to pull away from Virginia Tech and cruise to the 18-9 victory, securing their first ACC win.
"It shows our tenacity," said Brie Custis who scored the crucial goal that began the 6-0 Notre Dame run. "Right now, we're trying to find our brand and redefine it as fast, aggressive and passionate. The tenacity comes from having the ambition and the will to win."
It was a pair of senior captains who helped stem the tide at the end of the first half. Through advance scouting the Irish had found a seam on draw controls and Barbara Sullivan taking the draw was able to repeatedly and deftly pull the ball back over her head to just the spot where Margaret Smith was often awaiting. Smith controlled eight draws on the day, one shy of the school record.
Notre Dame would score on possessions gained by four of those eight draw controls but none more crucial than the three in rapid succession at the end of the first half of what was a suddenly tight 8-5 edge.
The first Irish possession after that last Hokie goal saw Caitlin Gargan thread a pass through the Virginia Tech defense to Hannah Hartman at the top of the crease for a goal at 2:56. Smith again controlled the draw after Hartman's goal and soon there after Gargan was ripping a tough angle shot into the top corner to put ND up 10-4 at 2:05. Buoyed by another Smith draw control, the Irish attack eventually found Gargan who ran straight through the Hokie defense for another goal at 1:18.
Virginia Tech never possessed the ball at any point in the half's final 3:56, a stretch punctuated by Smith fighting for loose balls on draws and Gargan factoring in a trio of offensive strikes.
"It was huge to get that possession and get the ball to attackers who could score those three goals," Smith said. "It was exciting to see."
Unfortunately the first half of the second stanza was all Hokies on the scoreboard and Notre Dame's lead was somewhat imperiled.
This time, it was sophomore Brie Custis who turned the tide. After Gargan was pressured and lost the handle on the ball at the top of the 12-meter fan, the five-foot, 10-inch Custis swooped in from a wing position, snagged the loose ball on the run from between three Hokie defenders, and carried her momentum straight to the net, beating the goalie.
Now leading 12-8, the entire game turned on Custis' strike.
"It's important that when a team goes on a run against you, something needs to happen," the Salisbury, Md. native said. "Whether it's a grub goal or a pretty shot from the outside - anything that it takes to get our momentum going. I love plays like that, the game changers and game shifters. Our offense did a great job of moving the ball and not letting (Virginia Tech's) three goal string affect our momentum."
Custis' goal was followed up by one from freshman Casey Pearsall less than a minute later. Soon there after, Grace Muller scored, Gargan scored two more and Kiera McMullan struck to put Notre Dame on top 18-7 with 4:35 left in a now lopsided game that was in complete control of Notre Dame.
A two-year captain, Smith loved what she saw from her teammates on a team dominated by freshmen and sophomores.
"We had composure," she said. "We are young, but we grew up a lot during those first 10 minutes of the second half. We didn't let it slip away. We knew we were better and came back. We had a great game plan, stayed composed, got that first goal and started the run."
The significance of the moment was not lost on Pearsall, one of the many new faces to the Irish lineup in 2014.
"It's a new page in our book and a step forward," the freshman from Wilton, Conn. said reflecting back on the historic win. "It was great not only to get our first ACC win, but for our team to move on (from Thursday's loss at North Carolina). We can build off of this. It's a motivator. With a young team, you can get easily discouraged. With this win and the leadership of our older players, it's definitely going to help us."
"Coming back from half, they did score those goals," said Alex Dalton, another of the many freshmen contributing to the Irish in 2014. "Once we realized that we could still do it, it was pretty easy. It clicked right after we scored our first goal of the second half. We took off and that was it."
Unlike the unfortunate Dulles-bound traveller, the Irish literally took off a couple of hours later, carrying a sense of confidence, accomplishment and momentum with them back to South Bend as they prepare for Wednesday night's tilt on the road against regional rival No. 4 Northwestern.