March 19, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. -
The general tactical philosophy for the No. 6 Notre Dame women's lacrosse team is no secret. Fighting Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny wants a spirited and deep offense and a relentlessly pressuring defense. Ball possession is the means to the desired end (winning games). Perhaps the best way to gain additional possessions is controlling draws. Therefore, if you are wearing a blue and gold uniform, digging deep and battling for loose balls off of those draws can often be the deciding factor in games.
Notre Dame has won the draw control battle four times in 2014. All four times, the Irish also won the game. At Northwestern, although the Wildcats led 11-8 on draw controls, the 11 wins remains as their fewest of the year and played a crucial role in Notre Dame's victory. Conversely, losing late draws proved costly in a loss to Boston College on Feb. 15 while being soundly beaten on draws this past Saturday at Maryland also hastened an Irish loss.
The Irish rank 48th nationally in draw controls, out of the country's 103 teams, with 12.00 per game. Moving this number upwards is something that will prove crucial in terms of how far Notre Dame progresses in the second half of the season and postseason.
Indicative of the "next man in" style of the Irish team, the draw control unit has gotten a makeover lately. Barbara Sullivan, the 5-foot-10 first-team All-American from last spring has finally been forced to yield due to an injury. The junior from Long Island will miss the remainder of the season and Notre Dame will petition the NCAA for Sullivan to receive a fifth-year of eligibility due to the injury. Sullivan ranks sixth in school history with 121 career draw controls and tops the team in 2014 to date with 22.
Thankfully, one of the people who continues to win critical battles for these free balls is senior captain Margaret Smith who is pushing hard for a second career All-America certificate, in part due to her 20 draw controls this year. Smith's draw controlling role in defeating Virginia Tech on March 2 can't be understated. Her eight draw controls were one shy of the school record and those eight possessions gained led to four Irish goals in the school's first-ever ACC win. Smith has tied 2009 All-American Shannon Burke for fourth in school history with her 124 career draw controls.
Surrounding Smith is exactly the type of depth that Halfpenny relishes. A total of 17 different Irish players already have a draw control on the nine-game 2014 season to date whereas only 18 controlled a draw over all 17 games in 2013. This spring, freshmen Cortney Fortunato
(13) and Casey Pearsall
(11) follow Sullivan and Smith on the team leader-board. With senior captain Molly Shawhan's
eight and sophomore Brie Custis'
seven, each of the team's four classes are represented amongst the top six draw controllers.
A combination of Notre Dame players have been stepping up into the center draw circle of late to fill Sullivan's shoes. Another athletic tall option has been the 5-foot-10 Custis, while the powerfully-built 5-foot-7 Pearsall has also taken plenty of cracks in the center. With no shortage of choices for both the center spot and fresh legs to fight for the loose ball, Halfpenny has plenty of avenues to explore for draw controls moving forward.
"That's something we focus upon on a daily basis," she said. "Our draw control unit is something we're continuing to work with. At the end of the day, our team will continue to grow and improve."
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The Maryland game reflected another component of the team's depth, a large number of players who can score goals. Notre Dame's 10 goals at Maryland came off of eight different sticks with only Rachel Sexton scoring more than once. The diverse ledger was comparable to Notre Dame's win at No. 4 Northwestern on March 5 when the Irish had seven different goal scorers and only Fortunato tallied more than once.
With Lindsay Powell's goal at Maryland, her first of the spring, the number of Notre Dame players to score a goal in 2014 is now up to 16. Powell became the seventh different Notre Dame player who has not started a game this year to score a goal. Overall, the Irish have gotten 33 goals this year (29-percent of their total offense), including two game-winning goals, from players who have started less than half of the team's games. Players who have started less than half of the team's games have also recorded 13 of Notre Dame's 47 assists on the year (28-percent).
This continued rotating of offensive waves is something the Fighting Irish will need to do for a successful second half of the 2014 season and to ensure good showings in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
"We have eight different scorers on the board at Maryland and our bench is coming up big," Halfpenny said. "It allows us to push the tempo with our fast, aggressive style and continue to play with the passionate gusto that the Fighting Irish are becoming known for."
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Next up for the Fighting Irish is another regional non-conference foe in Marquette on Wednesday night at 6:00 p.m. The teams met last year in BIG EAST play with the Irish claiming a 14-5 victory at Arlotta Stadium in the only meeting between the sides all-time.
Come rain or snow, this game will be played outdoors at Arlotta Stadium, marking the Fighting Irish's home outdoor debut after an unusually long winter forced each of the team's first four home dates indoors into the cozy confines of the Loftus Sports Center.
Notre Dame is 17-6 (.739) all-time at Arlotta Stadium, which opened in 2010, including a record five wins in 2013. After a stretch since Feb. 27 where the Irish played five out of six games on the road, three of them against teams ranked in the top four nationally, Notre Dame is excited to get back to playing games in South Bend. The Marquette game kicks off a run where five out of seven games will be at home for Notre Dame leading up to the ACC Tournament at Boston College's Alumni Stadium.
Marquette stands at 3-4 on the season and has yet to begin conference play. The Golden Eagles have picked up wins on the road at Michigan and Detroit this spring along with a victory over Coastal Carolina at home in Milwaukee. Marquette is led by a familiar face to Irish fans. Head coach Meredith (Simon) Black was a 2004 first-team All-American for the Irish and one of many Notre Dame alumni who are coaching collegiately across the country.
One of two non-conference games this week against BIG EAST members, joining a contest on Sunday at Villanova, it is a good time for the Fighting Irish to regroup for the ACC stretch run.
"We're ready to turn the page and to be back home, playing a regional opponent in Marquette," Halfpenny said. "We've been on the road for a long time and we're ready to be back home, refocus, reset and recharge the batteries."