April 18, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
It was the move of a veteran leader.
Only the ninth three-year team captain in Notre Dame's entire athletic history, Barbara Sullivan listened to head coach Christine Halfpenny address the team on Feb. 13 after a 13-9 win over No. 9 Stanford in which she had tied the school record by causing seven turnovers in the game -- an effort which would earn her national player of the week honors.
For the first time in 2016, Halfpenny began a custom of presenting a game ball to the team's player of the game. Cortney Fortunato received the game ball after the season-opener when she scored four times and added four assists in a win at Jacksonville. There was not much doubt where the second game ball would be heading after beating the Cardinal when Sullivan controlled six draws and gobbled up three ground balls to accompany her seven caused turnovers.
Sullivan had a different idea. The graduate student took the game ball from Halfpenny and immediate tossed it over to what she considered the real reason why the Irish shut down the Cardinal's offense. Sophomore Sydney Cardozo did not play in the game but she had tirelessly replicated the work of Stanford's top attackers all week on the scout team. The drills performed by the Irish during the week paid dividends on that Saturday and Sullivan was not going to let it go unrecognized.
"That was the nicest thing that's happened to me here," Cardozo said. "She's such a selfless person. She never takes her skills and her talent for granted. She's one of the most talented people on this team but she never lets it get to her head. She constantly works hard for it and is an advocate for every single person on this team, whether you're injured, a freshman, sophomore or a captain. She's always there for you and has your back."
Sullivan will tie the school record for appearances on Monday. A critical contest between No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 4 USC at Arlotta Stadium will be the 77th of her Irish career. There was a time when it appeared that she would get no farther than 41.
Sullivan suffered from a variety of perplexing back ailments her junior year. The first of her three years as a captain, Halfpenny was judicious with Sullivan's playing time, knowing that six games played is the limit to earn a medical redshirt year. The sixth game of the year was at No. 4 Northwestern, a regional nemesis which the Irish had not defeated since 2003.
The Garden City, New York native left it all on the field in helping Notre Dame to a 9-8 victory. She controlled three draws while holding All-American Alyssa Leonard to just four draw controls despite Leonard's average of 10.67 per game entering the contest against the Irish. Sullivan fought through pain to cause a turnover and even picked up an assist on Cortney Fortunato's goal 11 seconds into the game which set the tone for the night.
It would be the last time Sullivan stepped on the field for Notre Dame in 2014 but, true to her leadership traits, she continued to improve and help guide her teammates even from the sideline.
"She has grown so much," Halfpenny said of the lone player who has been in uniform for each of her five years at the helm of the Irish. "I would give credit to that adversity she had to go through when she lost that year due to a back injury that was quite a conundrum to figure out. She saw the game from a completely other side. Having had to face that real adversity that was `I might not get to play again' I think gave her such a love for the game and she's grown in her perspective and communication skills. It's been absolutely awesome."
Sullivan's on-field prowess needs no introduction in the lacrosse community. She is likely to become a three-time first-team All-American next month. Last spring Sullivan was a finalist for the Tewaaraton Award -- just the sixth defensive player ever to reach the final stage of candidacy. She holds Notre Dame single game, seasonal and career records for both caused turnovers and draw controls. She is also on the verge of helping guide the Irish to the NCAA Championships for a school-record fifth consecutive season.
"Barbara Sullivan is one of the best defenders I have ever watched play in person, of either gender," Patrick McEwen wrote for Inside Lacrosse on March 13 after Notre Dame downed No. 7 Princeton, 16-11. "Though she certainly took some risks en route to tying her career-high and the school-record for caused turnovers, for the most part her positioning and footwork was about as good as it gets."
Sullivan's biggest impact, however, has very little to do with her intimidating defensive presence. The essence of Sullivan lies in the truly rare combination of her elite athletic ability combined with her selfless manner evidenced by passing her game ball onto to Cardozo.
"Barbara has always been so supportive and that's contagious throughout the field," said fellow captain Brie Custis whom Sullivan helped seamlessly transition from midfield to defense in 2016. "She has a ton of experience in a leadership position and that shows. She's wise beyond her years. She's also super-competitive so she's pushed me to be one of the best defenders I can be on the field. She's super-competitive but she knows how to balance between the competitiveness and also having fun. She's a blast to be around and she's also making me a better player."
Not unlike Sullivan herself five years ago, the Irish had a can't-miss defensive freshman from Long Island this year in goalie Samantha Giacolone -- the starter from this past summer's United States Under-19 national team.
"She's a rock for me since I'm new and trying to learn everything," Giacolone said. "She knows everything there is to know so I can always turn to her for anything I need on the field or off the field. She's great to have as a freshman."
Giacolone ranks second in school history with her 8.07 goals against average this year. Her 11 wins in goal ties for seventh in Irish seasonal lore with a month to play. Some of this is due to her own remarkable talents but playing behind a defensive unit fueled by Sullivan has helped too, allowing Giacolone to focus more on her own game.
"She's a vocal leader on the field and obviously a physical leader," the Manorville, New York native added. "She's an amazing defender and causes so many turnovers. I can trust her a lot. I know that she's never going to make a mistake and, if she did, I have her back. She's a great leader for all of us freshmen."
Perhaps no one can best summarize what Sullivan means than her eloquent head coach.
"She's been everything that you want a competitor and a leader to be," Halfpenny said. "While next to her name you see `defender,' she's just an all-around lacrosse player and all-around athlete. I've heard some of the most impressive comments this year about Barbara from coaches and lax brains saying that she's one of the best defenders they've seen of either gender. (The comment above from McEwen) was my favorite.
"I hear other (Notre Dame) coaches saying that if women's lacrosse isn't playing that day, see if Barbara Sullivan can play for their own team because she competes so hard. She loves the grind. I think that's what makes her so special. And she's an outstanding teammate. She loves her teammates. She loves Notre Dame. She is a champion of everything that's right. She will go down in our sport as one of the best all-time defenders. That's just a cool thing to have the opportunity to coach someone who is one of the greatest."
Perhaps it is better to coach the greatest daily than face the greatest. Few know that better than Cardozo who continues to grind against the 5-foot 10-inch redheaded monster at the top of the Irish's notoriously fast, aggressive and passionate defense.
"It's a challenge and it hurts but it makes me better too," Cardozo said. "I'm honored to play against someone so good every day."
It is an honor to play against Sullivan. It is an honor to play with Sullivan. It is an honor to coach Sullivan. It is an honor to watch Sullivan. Themes like this repeat frequently when people of various perspectives discuss her. The frequency will be ending soon, however.
Sullivan plays her final regular-season game at Arlotta Stadium on Monday against the undefeated Trojans. A win in her record-tying 77th game for the blue and gold will help the Irish's argument to play host to one of the eight NCAA first and second round sites, May 13-15. Sullivan's 31 teammates all know unequivocally that they have some of the best on-field leadership possible in their attempt to make that happen.
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.