May 22, 2010

By Jon Marks
Special to NCAA.com

PRINCETON, N.J. - Had Notre Dame not made the NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Championships field, longtime coach Kevin Corrigan says the blame could have been pointed in only one direction: his.

But since the Irish sneaked in, they've made the most of their opportunity. They jumped to an early four-goal lead Saturday, then held off No. 3-ranked Maryland 7-5 at Princeton's Palmer Stadium. That sends Notre Dame to Baltimore next weekend for the Final Four.

Frankly, it's a place few -- if any -- expected them to be.

"I did a terrible job coaching this team the first part of the season," said Corrigan after the tandem of Rogers (Sean) and (Scott) Rodgers did it at both ends for the Irish. Sean Rogers tied a career high with three goals, while Scott Rodgers made eight saves to frustrate Maryland's comeback hopes. That enabled Notre Dame (9-6) to avenge last year's 7-6 first-round defeat to the Terps at South Bend, Ind., after the Irish had gone through the regular season 15-0.

"I didn't hold us to the right standards or put us in the right position," Corrigan added. "It was my fault.

"I had to make some changes and keep pushing. Hats off to these guys for overcoming such mediocre coaching."

When Notre Dame dropped consecutive Big East contests at Villanova and Georgetown in early April to fall to 5-5, no one realistically thought the Irish would still be alive at this point. But their defense stiffened at that point, allowing just 26 goals in the next four games, capped by last week's 8-5 win here over Princeton in first-round play.

"We had a greater sense of urgency," said Rogers, who had just nine goals coming in. "The seniors got everyone together and made us realize if we didn't play well and take care of business, we might not be in the tournament.

"That month of preparation has really paid off."

The Irish wound up the regular season 7-6, which was enough to earn an invitation to the tournament. That was all they needed.

"What a goofy year," laughed Corrigan, whose club never allowed Maryland closer than two goals after sprinting to a 5-1 lead early in the second quarter on consecutive goals by David Earl, Max Pfeifer, Rogers and Nicholas Beattie.

"What a journey! We lose six games, coming off an undefeated year, and we're fortunate to even get to play in the tournament. But we prepared ourselves for this. "Whether or not we'd get in wasn't up to us. So I couldn't be prouder of these guys. To do that in the midst of not having success shows the mark of character." "We just had to work hard and prepare, even though we didn't know our fate," said Rodgers, the Irish's massive 6-foot-4, 254-pound goalkeeper. "That kind of preparation got us ready for this."

Notre Dame struck early and often, putting the Terps exactly where coach Dave Cottle didn't want them to be.

"We didn't want to have to play catch-up against them," said Cottle, whose club trailed 5-3 at the half before Notre Dame opened it up in the third on goals by Grant Krebs and Rogers. "Their goalie looks larger than life.

"We had a lot of opportunities the first half but didn't take advantage. We missed the goal a few times, which happens against a good goalie."

After a late-third-period goal by Travis Reed gave the Terps some life and Joe Cummings cut it to 7-5 just 2:48 into the fourth, Maryland fans had thoughts of a dramatic comeback. But Rodgers and his defense thwarted them at every turn, putting an end to Maryland's dream of being the host school at the Final Four. "I don't think we were nervous," said Rodgers. "As a defense, we kind of look forward to it. It's our time to shine."

For Maryland, it's time to lament what might have been.

"In all the years I've been coaching, I've never been more disappointed," said a disconsolate Cottle. "This is my favorite team I've ever coached. I'm disappointed I couldn't find a way to get us there."

On the other hand, the Irish are very much alive after most had counted them out, and Corrigan couldn't be more thrilled.

"I have no idea about either team," he admitted when asked which team he preferred to play in the Final Four. "I'm just so happy to play." Turns out maybe the guy didn't do such a bad job coaching his team after all.