Notre Dame looking to avenge loss
Fighting Irish and Blue Devils meet in rematch of title game
With Duke and Notre Dame scheduled to play at Gillette Stadium on Sunday in the last quarterfinal game of the 2011 NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship (2:30 p.m., ESPN), it’s hard not to talk about the game they played some 51 weeks ago, a 6-5 victory for the Blue Devils that gave them the first NCAA Championship in the program’s history.
Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan, however, has found it quite easy.
“I haven’t brought it up at all,” the 23rd-year head coach of the Fighting Irish said. “We’ve talked about them much more in relation to where we were in February with them than anything last year. Frankly, I haven’t talked about last year once. There’s just nothing to talk about. We’re not the same team, they’re not the same team and this is not the same circumstance.”
Of course, some of the names and faces are still the same. Zach Brenneman, who scored a hat trick for the Irish in last season’s NCAA Championship game, remains a leader on offense for the Irish, and the senior midfielder is one of Notre Dame’s three nominees for the Tewaaraton Award, along with two of his classmates, defenseman Kevin Ridgway (an all-Tournament selection last year) and fellow midfielder David Earl. Duke, meanwhile, has its own pair of veterans up for the Tewaaraton in junior midfielder C.J. Costabile and senior attacker Zach Howell. Still, freshmen like Duke attackmen Jordan Wolf and Christian Walsh and Notre Dame attackman Westy Hopkins have made impacts for both teams, and even among the players who have returned from last season’s teams, things have changed.
“It’s hard for anyone to understand who doesn’t go through it on a year-to-year basis,” Corrigan said, “but there’s a lot less continuity in some of these things than you might believe.
“Clearly, when you’ve got some of these guys back who have played together for three years or whatever, then you start certain things with a bit of an advantage, at least in terms of the familiarity of guys playing next to each other, but I look at our team as being different from a year ago – we lost the kid in the cage, we lost a starting defenseman, we lost a couple of short-stick D middies who had played years for us in those roles, and we lost a guy on our first midfield and a guy on our attack. All across the field, we had guys to replace, and certainly, Duke did as well. They’ve got four freshmen in their starting group. Both teams are different than they were a year ago at this time.”
The Irish showed a hint of just how different they were in the first game of the season, when they came out and scored a 12-7 win over the reigning NCAA Champions at the Sunshine Classic in Jacksonville, Fla. It was the start of a 10-game win streak that saw the Irish claim the No. 1 ranking in the USILA Division I Coaches Poll and the Nike Media Poll before ending the regular season with losses to Syracuse and North Carolina. Now, meeting the Blue Devils for the first time since that season-opening meeting, Corrigan knows how much his team has matured, and knows that Duke has come a long way as well.
“We didn’t know what to expect from them in February,” Corrigan said. “They had all these new guys that we really weren’t familiar with. We’d only seen them in their game the week before. The two attackmen [Wolf and Walsh] were both playing midfield at that point, and now they’re playing huge roles in the middle of their offense on the attack. They’ve both developed into consistent threats over the course of the year, playing with a guy who is the opposite of them. He’s got all the experience and poise and confidence of an older guy who’s been through a lot in his career.”
Notre Dame doesn’t have the big guns to match up in a firefight with the Blue Devils – leading scorer Sean Rogers would be sixth in scoring on Duke – but the Irish do have the top scoring defense of any team that’s reached the quarterfinals. Stepping in for the graduated Scott Rodgers (the Most Outsanding Player at last year’s NCAA Championship), sophomore John Kemp has gone 11-2 with a 6.57 goals-against average and a .606 save percentage, ranking second and third in the nation in those respective categories.
“John has been terrific from Day 1,” Corrigan said. “I think he’s a rare kid. He’s got an unbelievably tough-minded approach to the game. He’s a competitor, and at the same time, doesn’t allow himself to get rattled and plays with great poise. That gives confidence to all the guys around him. He’s growing as a communicator and leader back there, but hasn’t been lacking in that area at any point in time along the way. He’s just done a great job of stepping in, and I think we’ve gotten very similar goaltending to what we got a year ago.”
With Kemp in the cage, Corrigan is looking forward to a different outcome in this year’s tournament meeting than in last year’s, even though he won’t phrase it that way. He remains firmly focused on the future, which he hopes will include a trip to Baltimore for this year’s NCAA Championship.
“I’m not stupid,” Corrigan said, “and I’m not naïve. Our guys know we lost the national championship to these guys last year, but that’s not something we’re going to talk about, and it’s not something we’re going to dwell on. It’s about this year’s team, it’s about this game, and it’s about these two teams competing on Sunday. That’s all.”