April 23, 2014
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. - Plenty of student-athletes across the country go through their entire careers without ever seeing the top team in their given sport in the flesh. Many others receive that fortunate opportunity to face the esteemed number one team in the nation at some point over a four-year career. Some are lucky enough to do it a couple of times. The Notre Dame women's lacrosse team (9-7, 2-5 ACC) is facing the No. 1 team in the country for the second game in a row and the third time this season alone.
The Irish take on No. 1 Syracuse (15-1, 6-1 ACC) Thursday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament at Boston College's Alumni Stadium. The Irish faced the top-ranked Orange in their last game as well, falling 18-10 to Syracuse at Arlotta Stadium on Saturday. Earlier this year, Notre Dame played then-No. 1 North Carolina on Feb. 27 at the Tar Heels' Fetzer Field.
It's all a part of what is ranked as the toughest schedule in the nation by the NCAA. Irish opponents are a combined 160-71 (.693) so far in 2014. Thursday's game will be the 12th out of 17 contests this year against a team currently ranked in the Top 20. The game will be the eighth the Irish have played this spring against a team currently ranked in the Top 10 of the polls.
Of the 16 different teams the Irish have faced in 2014, 13 of them possess a winning record. Seven Irish foes have already won at least 10 games with their conference and NCAA tournaments still to play.
Senior captain Margaret Smith wouldn't have it any other way.
"We're super-competitive," she said. "That's why we came to Notre Dame. Going in knowing that we're playing someone ranked so high is something we want to do."
"When student-athletes choose Notre Dame, they make a commitment to give their best in order to be the best," Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny said. "Our schedule gives them the opportunity to also compete against the best. We are very fortunate."
The end result of running the gauntlet of Notre Dame's 2014 schedule is a battle-tested team that is ready for postseason play. No challenge that the Irish will face will be unfamiliar, intimidating or overwhelming after the schedule that the team has been navigating since February.
"Without a doubt, the grind of playing top teams in and out of conference has strengthened each player mentally and physically," Halfpenny said. "I've always believed that to be the best, you have to play the best. Entering the 2014 season as the newest member of the ACC has given us the opportunity to grow, learn, mature and compete. While we've had our share of ups and downs during the rigorous regular season schedule, I would have it no other way."
"We go into every game every knowing that we're playing someone who's really good," Smith said. "We know going forward that we're going to be prepared going into the NCAA Tournament to play with anyone."
The Irish have done more than just prepare to beat top teams in 2014. Notre Dame beat then-No. 4 Northwestern on March 5 in the Great Barrington Field House, no small accomplishment as the Wildcats entered the game 101-3 at home since 2004. The Irish beat then-No. 7 Duke on April 11, topping the Blue Devils 12-10 and holding their potent offense to, at the time, a tie for its lowest goal total of the year. Notre Dame beat Stony Brook, a team that's 13-2 on the year, The Irish can also claim a victory over 12-3 Louisville this spring.
Now comes a second shot at the Orange after a game with a lopsided final score which Notre Dame can draw substantial positives from. Notre Dame played to an even 10-10 score against Syracuse over the game's final 48 minutes on Saturday after initallyt falling behind 8-0. One of the country's top offenses, the Orange did not score for the first 17:36 of the second half. The faces and uniform numbers will be familiar to the Irish along with the lofty ranking that Syracuse will carry onto the Chestnut Hill turf.
A fifth career opportunity to pick up the program's first-ever win over a top-ranked team is something Smith has been able to get used to, yet continues to relish.
"It never gets old," she said. "It's always exciting to have that chance to knock off the number one team. We know that the better teams we play leading up to the tournaments, the better the experience is for us."
Halfpenny is thrilled for the opportunity as well.
"I couldn't be more proud to go into the ACC tournament with my battle tested team," she said. "We look forward to putting our knowledge from the grind into action."
The third-year Irish mentor is taking her team into its first ACC tournament, but she knows what is coming. In three years as an assistant coach at Duke, Halfpenny's Blue Devil teams claimed three straight ACC regular season titles and a 2005 tournament championship in a league every bit as challenging as today's version. Six of the top 10 teams in this week's media poll, including Notre Dame, compete in the ACC. This gauntlet has its benefits.
"As a group, we learned how important it is to bring your best every day," she said. "We've learned how to stay focused for 60 minutes because nothing comes easy against the best. We've learned how important the details are on and off the field from preparation to execution."
Notre Dame is anxious to show off its execution on Thursday afternoon against No. 1 Syracuse at The Heights.