March 7, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - There are three words that you will hear often coming from the Notre Dame women's lacrosse team when asked about how the Fighting Irish like to play the game - fast, aggressive and passionate.
Lying at the core of third-year head coach Christine Halfpenny's vision for the team, a fast, aggressive and passionate style of play can be good at wearing down opponents, but it has several requirements to work effectively. One element that ranks highly on the list is having a deep roster so that the Fighting Irish can continue to attack its foes in waves.
"We play fast and we play aggressive for 60 minutes," Halfpenny said of her team's style. "It's a very physical game. You have to be deep in your bench to play that style. Our philosophy is to prepare and develop everybody so we're ready to go as deep into our bench as we need to go."
The team's stat sheet through six games reflects this concept well. Already this year 15 different players have scored a goal for the Irish and 17 have picked up a point. A total of 13 different players have taken a free position shot. Notre Dame has seen 21 different players collect a ground ball and 15 players control a draw. Seven players have scored more goals than their number of games started.
The Irish may have some exceptional individual talents on the roster, but having a variety of options to pick from in each phase of the game is what has made the Irish a winning roster as a whole.
"Our depth is incredible," senior Lauren Sullivan said. "I've never seen anything like it on any team that I've ever played for. We have the `next man in' mentality and we're all cheering for each other. When one goes in for another, there's no drop off."
One example of that came in the team's win over No. 4 Northwestern where seven different players scored Notre Dame's nine goals. Many of the most crucial plays late in the game came from people who were not starters. Sullivan netted the game-winner with 1:16 to play coming off of the bench. Molly Shawhan didn't start the game but had a draw control that set up the game-tying goal with 2:21 to play and later, inside the final minute of play, caused a turnover and gathered the ground ball. Kiera McMullan scored a goal and led Notre Dame with five ground balls at Northwestern in a game that she did not start.
The bottom line is, if you are wearing a blue and gold uniform, your chance to contribute will come.
"It's a luxury to have the players we have who can come off the bench and produce for us," said freshman Grace Muller who has not started a game but has five goals on the year and six ground balls. "There's no letup going from first to second line."
"There's no doubt that everyone on the field is capable," freshman Alex Dalton said. "You can trust every single person. We can all do the exact same thing so it doesn't really matter if you're a starter or not a starter. We all work just as hard and we all can play. It's a huge asset.
"It's very important because when you're sprinting up and down the field, you need fresh legs. Most teams don't have that. For us to be able to use all of our bench and keep the same level of play is great."
One part of the need to play so many people in Notre Dame's fast, aggressive and passionate system is that physical fatigue that Dalton alluded to, which can build up from so much sprinting. Another advantage of playing so many people that might not be as obvious from the stands is how it keeps the whole team mentally sharp for the full 60 minutes of a game as well. There's no room for complacency on the bench when every player's yearning to enter the game could become reality at any time.
"Coach Halfpenny likes to sub a lot so she has high expectations for the bench," said freshman Katherine Eilers who has played in all six of the team's games. "Going in for a starter, she still has the same expectations for me, which makes me perform better because I know that I have to live up to someone. (Coach Halfpenny) doesn't want to drop off any - only substitute."
The depth even extends to an area where teams don't always substitute, goalkeeper. Liz O'Sullivan has seen 83:34 worth of action this spring, almost double what either of Notre Dame's backups saw in 2013 and is already fifth in school history for minutes played in a season by the team's second-leading goalie. Just because her position doesn't change on the fly like field players, doesn't mean that O'Sullivan can rest easy. She has to remain on her toes at all times like everyone else on the never-stagnant Irish bench.
"There's a lot of special players here," O'Sullivan said of her teammates. "We have talent that goes all the way down the bench. Given a chance, any player on this team is ready to step up and do what it takes to get this team a W. (Coach Halfpenny) has shown that she's not scared to put anybody in. We're all very talented. It's just a matter of supporting everybody on the team and being ready to get out there when the time comes."
Having all of these special players is no accident. Halfpenny knows how she wants her team to play and knows exactly what she and her assistant coaches are crisscrossing the country looking for on their national recruiting trail.
"It helps to get players who are very athletic with stick skills to fit into our style," Halfpenny said. "You want people from hotbeds who have played at a high level but we're not afraid to take athletes from every region in the country that are incredibly athletic, have speed and a high athletic IQ that will fit into our system and want to continue to develop as lacrosse players. Both of those styles - strong lacrosse players with an athletic background along with raw athletes - we marry together and then we are able to play our style."
Notre Dame's style has worked well thus far, helping the team to a 4-2 record with a pair of ranked wins as the Fighting Irish prepare to play host to Louisville tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. inside the Loftus Sports Center. With the grind of an ACC schedule still upcoming, including games with four Top 10 teams, not to mention the challenges of both the ACC and NCAA tournaments, this depth will prove critical to the overall success of the 2014 Fighting Irish.