March 5, 2016
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -
By Leigh Torbin
The No. 4 Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team’s defense has not allowed an assisted goal to be scored in three games. Over 183:10 of game action, dating back to a Feb. 13 win over No. 15 Stanford, no team has been able to come into the Loftus Sports Center and perform the very simple offensive function of passing the ball to a teammate who shoots it into the Irish net.
Goals happen frequently in lacrosse. Generally, about half of them include an assist as one player’s pass leads directly to a teammate scoring when the opposing defense stretches or otherwise gets out of alignment. Three teams in a row – including No. 9 Boston College in ACC play – have failed to do that just once when facing the Irish.
Of the 24 goals allowed by the Irish this spring – by far a school record low through five games – only three have included an assist. Out of the 24 goals against, 13 have been free position goals, the equivalent of a penalty kick in soccer, so only 11 times in five games has a team scored against Notre Dame from a regular offensive set.
While much has been said about the contributions of Tewaaraton Award finalist Barbara Sullivan as Notre Dame’s top defensive marker and much more praise will likely be heaped upon freshman goalie Samantha Giacolone as the season progresses, it takes an entire unit to prevent assists.
Seniors captains and three-year roommates Brie Custis and Stephanie Peragallo start on defense alongside Sullivan and their solid chemistry living and playing together helps disrupt chances of Notre Dame’s opposition of creating chemistry of its own.
The fast, aggressive, passionate and together defense crafted by head coach Christine Halfpenny and assistant coach Katie Powell is not dissimilar to a matchup zone or box-and-one basketball defense. Custis and Peragallo act as the core of the zone portions of the unit and their success has been evident.
“Brie and Steph, since they aren’t our top matchup defenders, they’re doing a lot of the work that doesn’t get talked about and recognized,” Halfpenny said. “They’ve both been really strong in our transition game which credits Brie’s three years of being a midfielder for us. Her vision, speed and stick-handling skills gives us a whole new dimension in the backfield.
“Everyone’s a puzzle piece. They fill different roles for us. But together it’s like a waltz back there. You usually say that about and offense and not a defense. That’s a neat thing for us as coaches to see how they play off of each other.”
Notre Dame may return 11 of its 12 starters from 2015, but the one hole was defensive stalwart Leah Gallagher. Halfpenny’s outside-the-box method of replacing her was not with another defender but by bringing the rangy Custis out of the midfield and into a more permanent defensive role, a third of the field where she had proven adept in the past.
“We had a need for someone back on defense and loved what she does,” Halfpenny said. “We thought if we could pull back on some of those midfield minutes where she’s just running and make them much more efficient, much more about quality over quantity. It’s somewhere that everyone’s comfortable playing with her. She has high IQ, understands our defense, has the size, the speed, the athletic ability. Se was asked ‘what do you think?’ She was thrilled. She was all about it and has been a natural fit.”
Likewise, Halfpenny gushes about the positive traits which Hauppauge, New York native Peragallo brings beyond just statistics with her 81 career caused turnovers that tie for ninth in school history.
“Steph has so much experience for us,” the coach said. “She has been starting since she was a freshman. She was a part of the infancy of this high-pressure aggressive system, and gaining all the knowledge she needs to work this hybrid zone. Coming from a hotbed in Long Island she had a solid defensive background, even soccerwise. Her ability to contain is outstanding.”
It is the synergy on and off the field with the defense which has helped it congeal on the field. The unit contains three of the four team captains (Custis, Peragallo and Sullivan) while the fourth, midfielder Stephanie Toy, has also been known to get actively engaged with the defensive unit’s no-nonsense work. The fact is not lost on the team.
“Every time we go for a double (team), I know what (Brie’s) next move is going to be,” Peragallo says. I know if she’s going to go for the check or not. It helps us with that and communicating off the ball. When our cutters exchange, we’re good with switching and not switching.”
“It says how we work as a unit and as a team for those caused turnovers and stops,” Custis commented. “I think we have something unique this year with our defense. We all mesh with one another. It’s like we’re reading each other’s minds. It’s awesome. It’s something to be excited about.”
It all has manifested itself in the number three at the bottom team tally line of the opponent assists column through five games. It is something the Irish hang their hats on and will need to continue in Saturday’s ACC matchup against a 6-0 Louisville team which crushed Northwestern on Thursday and is very much underrated at No. 11 nationally.
“A big part of our defense is having each other’s back,” Peragallo said. “When they don’t score assisted goals, it means that we’re moving well off the ball. We’ve done a better job of that lately.”
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.