April 13, 2015
There were questions when the University of Notre Dame women's lacrosse team returned to its hotel on Long Island after a 9-5 loss to Stony Brook on March 10.
It marked the third consecutive loss for the Fighting Irish--and the third consecutive game in which the Irish offense failed to reach double digits.
Questions about the Irish weighed heavily on an already dreary mood.
"We talked about it . . . and no, that's not what we wanted," Notre Dame head coach Christine Halfpenny said. "That wasn't our best effort out there. We weren't gelling, we weren't clicking, we weren't finding each other and we weren't fueling off of one another."
What was a low point for the Irish turned into a stepping stone.
Instead of avoiding the questions about their team, the Irish confronted them.
On Sunday, just how far the Irish have come since the brutal night in Long Island was evident as the Irish ran past Michigan 21-12 in the first women's lacrosse meeting between the storied rivals.
Notre Dame's victory was the sixth in the past seven games for the Irish and likely clinched a berth in the NCAA Championship bracket. The No. 10-ranked Fighting Irish are 9-5 and play host to No. 7 Northwestern Thursday night in a match that could determine which team begins NCAA action on its home field.
"That was a really tough losing streak for us," said Irish star Cortney Fortunato about the tough stretch in March. "It hurt a lot. It was definitely a demoralizer, getting beaten up a few games in a row. As a team, we kind of said, `This needs to be the turning point of our season because we can't afford any more games like that.' Fortunately, we came out in the next game and started to turn it around."
Fortunato said the Irish didn't have to look far for answers.
"It was a matter of heart and pride and just having respect for our school and name that's across our chest," Fortunato said. "We played better for that reason and for ourselves, too, because we worked really hard to not have losing streaks like that."
Sunday's victory continued a remarkable surge by the Irish. In Notre Dame's six victories in its past seven games, the Irish have two wins over top-five teams. Notre Dame upset No. 7 Syracuse and No. 4 Virginia. The only loss for Notre Dame in the past seven games is a 9-8 setback in the final minutes against No. 3 North Carolina.
Fortunato added to her All-America credentials Sunday with six goals to lead the Irish, who unleashed a balanced attack by having 10 different players find the net. Fortunato scored her six goals in the second half, tying an Irish record for most goals in a half. The Irish sophomore attacker now has 48 goals (through 14 games). She scored 46 in 19 games last season. Fortunato has 62 points so far this season, one away from last season's 63 points.
Annaheim said the Irish balance - finding open players when Fortunato is targeted - will be a key factor in tournament success.
"We work on what happens when Cortney is denied, how we work to get each other working," Annaheim said. "I'll take it if the opening is there. If her defense slides, then she's wide open. We're really been working on it together. We've just kind of clicked. It's an unspoken thing.
"Our scout defense does a really good job of showing us the look of what each defense is going to give us. All the credit to them. Once it works in practice, it's easy to do it in a game. It's really great that every player on the field is such a threat. Once one person does it, everybody else steps up. We really picked a good time to start playing really well together."
Halfpenny said it's been special to watch her club grow up.
"We're hot at the right time, but the truth of the matter is that we are realizing our potential so we're not surprised about this," Halfpenny said. "We knew February was going to take some time to get our gelling and our chemistry together. It might sound like a broken record saying February was learning about each other and getting our legs underneath us. March was battling through and finding our identity.
"Now, in April we're starting to hit our stride. It's just the natural process of a team growing up over the course of a season. The beauty is that they're doing it with incredible conviction and confidence behind strong leadership from the senior class."
Halfpenny said after the Long Island hotel heart to heart, the mini-teams within the Irish melted away and one Irish team emerged. As the players pulled together, the Irish started looking for each other.
"We got much more structured on the offensive end, running things for our players where they can be really successful, finding the ball in the middle, getting our hands more free and utilizing our defensive swarming efforts to fuel the offense," Halfpenny said. "We talked a lot about getting more exciting. When a team throws the ball out of bounds, it's not like, 'Whoops, they threw the ball out of bounds.' We caused that. We had to start gaining confidence out of that and showing the right kind of body language, because that's contagious. We talked about that in Stony Brook, mini-teams within the team and contagious excitement for execution of our game plan."
There was plenty of excitement for Halfpenny and the Irish in the second half against Michigan. The Irish motion offense established a powerful presence, and the quick-response Irish fast break struck in rapid response to Michigan goals.
"Some of those answers have been found, but the credit really goes to the players," Halfpenny said. "They're making plays out there.
"When we need a draw, they're making a play to come up with it. When we need a goal, they're making a play to find a beautiful finish. It's not just a finish any more. They're not trickling over the line, they're hitting the back of the net. When we need a stop, there are double teams all over the ball."
And as the Irish head into their stretch run, answering the questions from a harsh night in Long Island could lead to a bright days in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament and NCAA Championship.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent