April 27, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
Casey Pearsall, All-American midfielder for the No. 6 Notre Dame women's lacrosse team, is a perpetual force on the field where she will pressure foes on both offense and defense. She plays a non-contact sport in a sometimes physical and always aggressive manner. But, before she dons her zig-zagged eye black and becomes that imposing player, Pearsall's voice is a soft one. She speaks in a calm and relaxed manner when off of the field. Pearsall is polite and courteous to those around her.
Pearsall's pacifical visage vanishes when asked about the team's loss at Louisville earlier this year.
"We were definitely upset," she said of the emotions walking off of the field after the game. "We didn't want to be in that situation. We were disappointed. We didn't necessarily play to our potential at that point. It was a realization that we had a lot more work we had to do."
March 5 stung for the team. The Irish took their first loss of the season that day, 10-9 in overtime, at Louisville and it did not sit well. Notre Dame led 7-4 five minutes into the second half. The score would be tied 8-8 and later again at 9-9.
The Irish had quality scoring chances at the end of regulation and in the first half of overtime but could not convert and capitalize. Then the whistle blew to begin the second half of overtime and the bells of sudden death tolled for Notre Dame almost immediately. Senior Kaylin Morissette quickly controlled the draw, rushed the ball downfield and passed to Kelli Gerding who tallied the game-winning goal just nine seconds after play had resumed.
The Cardinals charged onto their home field in celebration. The Irish looked despondent wondering what could have been with just one percent more effort and execution. Pearsall is not the only member of the Notre Dame team that wants to replay that game sensing that the team let a victory escape its grasp.
"(Walking off the field) it was a mix of anger and passion because I don't think that we thought that's the way it was supposed to go," graduate student and three-year captain Barbara Sullivan said. "We knew we didn't play to our potential. We were happy that we got the ball back (just before the end of regulation) and were able to run a set but things just didn't go our way. There was a little bit of regret over things like that we could have done a little bit different at times but I think we've definitely learned from it."
The team went to a delicious but subdued dinner that evening at the nearby home of freshman Sydney Flynn's parents Jeannine and Scott. The Irish coaching staff grit its collective teeth back at the team hotel and broke down the game film -- finding many positives to accentuate but also some maddening negatives. The team had a meeting to watch these clips after returning from dinner. The matter was considered closed.
The team knew that it would love to play the game over again but also knew that its Royal Excursion bus did not have a flux capacitor and a full load of plutonium. The one-in-seven odds existed that the Irish would get another fight with the Cardinals seven weeks later in Blacksburg, but the team would have to get over the frustration of the loss on its own with no promise of an opportunity to avenge the disappointing defeat.
COUNTRY ROADS TAKE US HOME, MENTALLY
The morning after the Louisville loss, the Irish boarded a bus and drove six and a half hours east to Blacksburg, Virginia -- coincidentally also the site of this weekend's ACC Championship. A typically-festive bus ride ensued full of laughing, singing and sometimes-sophomoric games. The Irish stopped for lunch at Jimmy John's in downtown Huntington, West Virginia and the team, almost all of whom had never been to the Mountaineer State, relished the opportunity to explore their surroundings.
By the time the Irish arrived at Virginia Tech Sunday night, Louisville had sufficiently been placed in the rear view mirror. Two days later, the Irish would cruise past the Hokies, 19-10, and then douse the Lady Flames of Liberty, 25-2, the following afternoon. A corner had been turned.
This progress as a team has continued mostly-unabated since March 5. Notre Dame is not only ranked sixth in the IWLCA coaches poll but, perhaps more importantly, also stands sixth in the RPI which will play a role in selecting the eight first and second round host sites for the upcoming NCAA Championships.
The Irish have collected 12 wins -- one shy of the school's regular season record -- and done it against a ferocious schedule. Each of the last six foes Notre Dame has faced, and nine of the last 10, have been ranked in the top 15 of the polls. It is quite possible the Irish will not see another unranked team this season.
Stout on both offense and defense, Notre Dame ranks seventh nationally in scoring margin, averaging 6.35 goals per game more than its foes. Notre Dame comfortably leads the nation in caused turnovers at 14.76 per contest.
"We've matured," Pearsall said. "We've been battle-tested. We've had a lot of adversity that we've overcome. I think we want it and displaying that is something that we've taken pride in by being passionate."
"I think taking every opportunity with the ball and knowing that it matters," Sullivan said of what has changed mentally. "There's not any possession that isn't important. We've been smarter on the draw at times. On defense we've changed some sets around and gotten better in our sets and matchups."
A DOUBLY SWEET POSTGAME
The Irish walked out of their Ohio Stadium locker room on Saturday jubilant after a 17-9 win over No. 15 Ohio State. A birthday cake awaited in the parking lot for Hannah Hartman, courtesy of her parents, Susan and Brian, who had driven it to Columbus from their Maryland home. A jubilant Halfpenny had two more pieces of sweet news once the team boarded the bus.
First came the literally sweet news. Although the team fell one goal short of the 18 needed to earn a postgame ice cream social per team custom, in celebration of both the big win and for capping a successful regular season at 12-5, Halfpenny announced that the bus would be making a pit stop at Graeter's before getting on the highway back home to South Bend.
Then came the figuratively sweet news, as a result of Saturday's action around the ACC -- a Syracuse win over Louisville and a North Carolina win over Duke -- the Irish would get a rematch with the Cardinals in the ACC quarterfinals.
It was hard to tell which announcement got the louder round of applause.
"We were really excited," senior captain Stephanie Peragallo said of hearing the news. "They are a fun team to play. We have a bit of pent up feeling for wanting to beat them. I'm happy that we have the opportunity to play them again."
"If I could go back and pick one game I'd like to redo, it would probably be that one," Sullivan said of the March 5 loss to the Cardinals. "I think the rest of the team feels the same way. It will be good that we get to play them."
"Everyone was really excited to have another opportunity back at it against a team that's really good but we can put up a good fight against," Pearsall said. "It's something that we're always going to look forward to."
MORE SET FOR MORISSETTE
Motivation, desire, determination and hustle alone does not win a lacrosse game. Those attributes need to be combined with solid tactics and execution. It will all need to roll together for Notre Dame to beat No. 8 Louisville on Thursday night and much of it will be focused on Cardinal senior All-American midfielder Kaylin Morissette.
The six-foot tall Canadian national team member is second in the nation in draw controls and has been a thorn in Notre Dame's side the past two years. True rivalry cannot spark without a measure of respect and Morissette has Notre Dame's.
After winning the first six meetings with the Cardinals from 2009-14, Louisville has won the last two, spoiling 2015 Senior Day at Arlotta Stadium in addition to this year's win, with Morissette at the forefront. The 2015 game saw her control five draws, cause two turnovers, score twice and add an assist. On March 5, she controlled nine draws, scored twice and assisted on three other Cardinal goals, one of them being the afore-mentioned overtime game-winner.
How the Irish handle Morissette will likely play a significant factor in how the Irish feel when walking out of Lane Stadium on Thursday night.
"She's really good on the draw," adds Peragallo. "She's big and strong and has a lot of good assets."
"She's a great lacrosse player," Sullivan says of her fellow All-American. "The advantage of another game against her is me knowing more about her tendencies and how to handle it. And, how the team can handle it on the draw. It's not just me. I think they have a great overall team and it's always great to go against other great players."
Notre Dame, despondent after facing Louisville on March 5, has an opportunity to make amends on a grand stage April 28. The moment was never guaranteed but has arrived. The Irish will aim to harness all it has gained and learned over the seven weeks inbetween to extend its stay in Blacksburg by advancing to the ACC semifinals for the second straight year. Its leadership knows accomplishing the goal it missed March 5 is both in its own hands and at hand.
"We saw it as a missed opportunity," Peragallo said of the March 5 contest. "We wanted to get that win and we didn't. But we took it afterwards as a learning experience. We've grown a lot since then and we have all the tools we need to beat them this time."
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.