Last season, Notre Dame capped an undefeated regular season with another GWLL title and set a program record for both wins and winning percentage. They finished #9 in the final rankings, and while the season ended on a disappointing note with a playoff loss to Maryland, it was just one more step for a program that has consistently outperformed preseason expectations. This year the Irish start the season right where they left off: ranked #9 in the first Nike/Inside Lacrosse Media Poll. With the amount of returning talent in South Bend, it’s hard not to expect another great year out of Notre Dame.
There is no debate that Notre Dame will face stiffer competition this year than they did in their last season of GWLL play. In fact, you could not open and close the season against any stronger opponents than Notre Dame is facing. The Irish will travel to Durham, North Carolina to take on No. 2 Duke February 20th and end the regular season against No. 1 Syracuse May 1st. They also play three other ranked opponents (Loyola, Denver and Georgetown) and three teams that received votes for the top 20 (Ohio State, Villanova, Penn State). Last season they were the only ranked team in the GWLL and played no top 5 teams.
The only thing that could hurt Notre Dame this year is the lack of a Big East automatic qualifier or conference tournament. Notre Dame was dominant in the GWLL and repeatedly won the AQ for entrance to the tournament. Without the AQ, or a conference tournament to boost strength of schedule the way the ACC does, ND will have to build its resume through only its 13 regular season games. This makes the already pivotal games against Duke, Syracuse and Georgetown even more crucial to deciding the tournament fate of the Irish.
New Look Offense
Along with a new conference and new stadium Notre Dame will also feature a different looking offense than what we’ve seen in the past. Ryan Hoff, Notre Dame’s all-time leading goal scorer and one of the best pure finishers in NCAA history, graduated in 2009 leaving a large void to be filled on offense. Rather than try to replace Hoff with a player with a different skill set, the coaching staff decided to modify the offense to best suit the weapons they have. “We want to put our players in the best position to succeed,” says head coach Kevin Corrigan, “we don’t want to try to replace Ryan with someone who has different skills than Ryan had. You won’t see us running the same offense with a crease attackman as we have in the past.”
So who will step up on offense? Returning starters from last year include pre-season 2nd Team All-American Grant Krebs and Zach Brenneman at the midfield along with senior captain Neal Hicks at attack. All three of these players had large offensive roles last year and should be key players to watch this season. Brenneman and Hicks are both very dangerous with the ball in their sticks and Krebs, who was recognized as an honorable mention All-American last year, has a deadly outside shot. Complementing Neal Hicks at attack will be Nick Beattie and either Sean Rogers, senior Colin Igoe, or some combination of the two. At midfield David Earl and a number of other players, including some freshmen, look to have an impact. Notre Dame brought in a highly touted class of midfielders who could all contribute at some point this season. “They all do something different and are great athletes who can help our team. We’ll try to find ways to get them on the field as the season goes on,” says Corrigan before adding with smile, “but it might not be a great idea to throw them to the wolves against the top team in the country on the road to start the season. We’ll bring them along as fast as it makes sense to.”
What makes Notre Dame a scary opponent for any team is their defense, which allowed an NCAA best 6.19 goals per game last year. Goalie Scotty Rodgers (pre-season 1st team All-American) and Sam Barnes (pre-season 2nd team All-American) anchor a defense that is known for not giving up easy goals. Rodgers, who had an NCAA best 6.14 GAA and save percentage (63.3%), will take over a lot of the communication responsibilities from Regis McDermott who graduated last year. Stepping in at close defense for McDermott will be senior captain Mike Creighton. It is not easy to replace a player like McDermott, who was a 3rd team All-American and a true leader, but if there is one person who could ease the transition it is Creighton. Many of Creighton’s teammates commented on how he had really stepped up this fall and his recent election as a team captain reflects those sentiments. Coach Corrigan seemed to echo those feelings on Creighton. “We don’t want Mike to try to be Regis. We want Mike to be Mike,” said Corrigan, “and while he wasn’t a starter last year it isn’t like he hasn’t played before. He’s been playing for us for four years and played in every game for us last year. We’re very confident in him.” On top of that, Notre Dame also features pre-season All-Americans at LSM in Andrew Irving and at the faceoff X in Trever Sipperly. Irving scooped up 51 groundballs last year as a sophomore and Sipperly won 56% of faceoffs a year ago.
Many believe that the reason Notre Dame plays consistently staunch defense is their discipline, communication and coaching. Combine their great system with an abundance of returning talent and you begin to understand why many people are optimistic about this team. In football there is a very old and accepted adage that “defense wins championships.” Only time will tell if the same holds true for lacrosse.