March 22, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Entering the 2014 season, it was obvious that Notre Dame's women's lacrosse team, now ranked No. 6 in the nation, was going to have depth in the midfield. What was going to take some time to settle out was just which options would be the most viable and how to best mesh the position group.
A familiar face at the Compton Family Ice Arena for Notre Dame hockey games, women's lacrosse head coach Christine Halfpenny's solution, which has worked tremendously well, was not unlike what hockey coach Jeff Jackson and his ilk do on the ice with their forwards - rotate them in lines of three.
Coming of off the bench in waves, the midfield units have allowed the Fighting Irish to keep up the high tempo of their fast, aggressive and passionate style of play, thus creating opportunities all over the field and leading to seven wins through 10 games this spring.
Brie Custis, Casey Pearsall and Stephanie Toy have formed the team's top line of midfielders while the trio of Katherine Eilers, Hannah Hartman and Michele Phillips have been a capable second line and the combination of Grace Dooley, Emma Claire Fontenot and Julia Giorgio stand ever-ready to jump into the game as a third midfield line.
"The midfield is the deepest we've had since I've been here and we've found some great chemistry," Halfpenny said. "It wasn't a plan, but it happened that we have midfield lines. We're excited about the nine middies that we have. It's deeper than most teams boast.
"This year we've been able to nicely mesh all of the aggressiveness that we want to play on defense, all of the speed that we want in the midfield and now the output from them to add to the offense we have."
With these lines rolling through, the old coaching adage that competition breeds success is not lost upon the Irish.
"If one middie line is slacking, the other can come it and that makes everyone work harder," Toy said. "Everyone is pushing each other to be better. The depth in the middie lines is helping out our whole team."
"It helps you push yourself even harder when you know a second line is coming in that can be just as successful," Custis added. It makes you a better player all around."
Causing turnovers on defense, pushing the ball upfield and finding ways into the scoring ledger, Halfpenny loves what she sees from those top two units in particular.
"They're able to come out and set the tone right away," she said of the starters, Custis, Pearsall and Toy. "They have great competitive fire, drive, will and they play great defense, which we're excited about. They've been finding the back of the net too. It's been a productive unit at both ends of the field. That second line, which is another young group, plays fearless lacrosse. They're playing great defense and bring us ground balls, draw controls, caused turnovers and points."
Phillips, for one, can see why she pairs well with her linemates.
"We complement each other well," she said. "We're all different players but each person has a specific role. I gravitate more towards offense. Hannah and Katherine are more defensive-minded. We help each other out on both ends."
"Our best asset is our chemistry," Hartman said. "We all work well together and that is what allows us to play fast and really aggressive. It's our job to contribute everywhere. Offense, defense, inbetween the 30s, we just do a little bit of everything. When you know who you're playing with, you can play to each other's strengths. It definitely helps playing with the same people every day."
One component of these new midfield lines has been working on the crucial draw controls to gain extra possessions. With the loss of All-American Barbara Sullivan's ability to controls the ball, new faces have found themselves in that circle, most often Pearsall and Custis. Having familiar faces around them has helped.
"Everyone supports one another and everyone's willing to fight for the ball," Pearsall said of draw controls. "It helps when your teammates are willing to fight for that ball along with you. We all play with each other well."
Applicable to almost any sport, the adage remains that successful teams are invariably strong in the middle. Notre Dame has been strong and deep in its midfield this spring and the results have been recognized on the scoreboard and in the win column.
"I call out midfield unit `legs' because we're the legs of the team," Custis said. "We do all the dirty work. As a midfielder, you go up and down the field so many times. Having another set of midfielders that can come in and play just as strong as you makes our team powerful."
That powerful team is presently in Philadelphia awaiting a challenge on Sunday at noon on the road at old BIG EAST rival Villanova. The Wildcats, who have a winning record at 4-3 on the year, are the last unranked team that Notre Dame is scheduled to face in 2014. The powerful team, bolstered by its three lines of midfielders, will be in a position to make noise against that challenging schedule if the trends in the middle continue.