Feb. 13, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum

With his Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team holed up for the night in a hotel just north of the city last March, Irish sports information director Sean Carroll used the spare time to see an old friend in downtown Atlanta. He had dinner, caught up, and headed back to the hotel.

An hour later, he watched on TV as a tornado spun through the streets of downtown Atlanta and paused to peel back the roof of the Georgia Dome.

“We were out to dinner, and it was storming pretty bad, but we didn’t think anything of it,” Carroll said. “Then it was like, ‘Wow that’s crazy. Then you realize you’re in the city.”

The first-ever NCAA men’s lacrosse game in the state of Georgia – a game that Notre Dame eventually won, 19-7, over Dartmouth last March 15 – almost didn’t happen. It started almost three hours late as the remainder of the storm that brought Atlanta its first recorded tornado cleared out, but was about one lightning crash away from being packed into the Samsonite and carted back to South Bend, Ind. and Hanover, N.H.  

“We weren’t even sure we could get the game in – we had a flight to catch,” Carroll said. “We were actually lucky. There was a tornado watch, but the weather never really got that bad.”

On Saturday – the true opening weekend for D-I men’s lacrosse – the ninth-ranked Irish head back to the Peach State for the second-ever NCAA men’s lacrosse game in state history, taking on No. 17 Loyola at McEachern High School in Atlanta suburb of Powder Springs on Saturday. (Follow on Gametracker, 1 p.m.) One of four top-20 matchups on the day, the contest between the Irish and Greyhounds may just be the most intriguing, set as it is far outside the usual boundaries of lacrosse and featuring two teams that may be ranked just a little low to start the year.

Oh, yeah. The forecast for Powder Springs has Saturday in the upper 50’s, with a chance of some assertive morning dew.

It’ll be the 18th all-time meeting for the two teams. Loyola’s carrying a 13-4 all-time advantage, but Notre Dame’s looking to take third straight season-opening win over the Greyhounds. In each of the last two years, the Irish have opened up with close (9-7 in 2007, 7-6 in 2008) wins to start the year.

And for an Irish team picked to finish first in the GWLL, another win to open up should answer a few of the questions hawking the program this offseason.   

The questions surrounding the Fighting Irish, entering their 29th season and coach Kevin Corrigan’s 21st, have flocked around how the team will replace Will Yeatman, whose suspension from athletics at South Bend led him to transfer to Maryland – a team that looked to have, even without the 6-foot-6, 260-pound attacker, an inside track to the national quarters.

But, Corrigan said, they shouldn’t need to have to think about replacing Yeatman. This is a balanced team. Has been for years. Last year, the entire first midfield had between 30 and 33 points, while each first-line attackman pulled down between 30 and 50.

You don’t replace a guy like Yeatman, he said, but in truth, the Irish never really had him. He played for one season, in 2007. It was, by virtually all sane accounts, a tremendous one – one that saw him lead the team in points (46) and earn LaxPower Rookie of the Year nod.

But that was two years ago. Last year, without Yeatman, the Irish stormed through the season at 14-2 before finally falling to eventual national champion Syracuse in the NCAA quarterfinals, 11-9.

“The harsh reality for our guys is we had Will Yeatman on our team for three months,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s all he ever played for us.”

This is a team that’s returning a bulk of the talent from a team that finished ranked fifth in the country, posting the NCAA’s fifth-best scoring offense (12.09 goals per game) and scoring defense (7.04 a game). And that scoring comes from everywhere, Corrigan said.

Senior attackman Ryan Hoff, Notre Dame’s fifth all-time scorer (102 goals), is back. So is classmate Duncan Swezey, who racked up 39 points. But the buzz this spring has been around the third attacker, junior Neal Hicks, who’s sliding up from the midfield to play a position he seems made for.

“I think we’re expecting a lot, and even though everybody talks about how we lost Yeatman, we’re over that,” said senior defenseman Regis McDermott. “We don’t see it as a loss. As much as we lost … a lot of guys stepped up. The guy Neal Hicks stepped up, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think the guy’s missed a shot all preseason.”

For Loyola, picked second in the ECAC this year, the Greyhounds may be in for a tough start to the season. A team that’s returning eight starters from last year – and 35 letterwinners – is bringing back its top four scorers, although the top scorer, Shane Koppens, has to sit out the first two games as part of the NCAA’S decision to grant him an extra year of eligibility.

Without Koppens, who led the team with 44 points last year, the scoring falls on junior Cooper MacDonnell (27 points in ’08), Matt Langan (18) and Collin Finnerty (17).

But, as the last two matchups between the teams have shown, defense tends to reign over these games. And both teams feature some of the best defenses in the country, with McDermott anchoring Notre Dame’s squad and Loyola’s D led by preseason First-Team All-American P.T. Ricci at longstick midfield, along with a defensive grouping of Eric Kohl, Steve Layne, Steve Dircks and Eddie Graham.

Both corps will be tested. Quickly. But with its leading scorer out, Loyola will need to be in about mid-April form to stop the Irish from getting their third straight season-opening win.

“We’ve grown a lot since my freshman year,” Hoff said. “Now, I feel like we’re a perennial tournament team, always knocking on the door.”

Other games to watch:
No. 20 Bucknell @ No. 6 Duke | Durham, N.C., Saturday, 12 p.m. | Gametracker

It’s the first look at John Danowski’s Duke team without its all-everything pair of scorers, as Matt Danowski (the NCAA’s all-time leader in points) and Zack Greer (all-time leader in goals) went on to the MLL and Bryant, respectively. But the Blue Devils aren’t short on talent, with six preseason All-America nods and an attackman, in Max Quinzani, who tallied 60 points last year. But Bucknell’s returning almost everyone, with 93 percent of its scoring back from last year. The only question, after a year in which the Bison won only 44 percent of their face-offs, is if they’ll get the ball.

No. 19 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Navy | Annapolis, Md., Saturday, 12 p.m. | Gametracker
After Ohio State’s quarterfinal berth last year, first-year coach Nick Myers looks to keep up the momentum. A number of key players return for the Buckeyes, from Joel Dalgarno and Jeff Ryan on attack – with 113 points between them last year – to junior James Green in the midfield. For the Midshipmen, defense is key, as always. Andy Tormey anchors a defensive unit that’s been in the top four three straight years. And although Navy’s returning the majority of its starters from ’08, it’ll be tough to replace the losses of All-Americans Nick Mirabito on attack and Jordan Dinola on defense.

No. 15 Denver vs. No. 8 North Carolina | Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, 1 p.m. | Gametracker
Denver’s deep but had discipline issues from last year. If the Pioneers can address them, this could be a team that could make a run at Notre Dame in the GWLL and the rest of the country in the national tournament. For North Carolina, it’s the same old song, with somebody new at the helm. This is an immensely talented Tar Heels squad, led by new coach Joe Breschi, who left his alma mater to resurrect the Ohio State program, but was at Chapel Hill when the Tar Heels went to 12 national tournaments in 14 years between 1980-93. UNC, after getting bounced from the tournament by Navy last year, is looking to start off strong.