May 22, 2010

Irish, After 'Goofy Year,' Advance to Final Four

by Patrick Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Game Blog

Goalkeeper Scott Rodgers backstops a stout Notre Dame defense that has yielded just 10 goals combined in NCAA tournament upsets of Princeton and Maryland. The Irish are headed to their second final four after a 7-5 quarterfinal win over Maryand.

© Kevin P. Tucker

PRINCETON, N.J. -- The Notre Dame men's lacrosse team spent much of the first week of May wondering if it could even reach the NCAA tournament with a record just above .500 and no chance to make an impression as the rest of the country wrapped up the regular season.

The final week of the month will be filled with a different type of anxiety -- holding back excitement about the program’s first final four appearance since 2001.

The unseeded Fighting Irish bolted to an early lead, then suffocated a previously potent Maryland attack in a 7-5 quarterfinal upset of the third-seeded Terps in the NCAA quarterfinals Saturday at Princeton Stadium.

Notre Dame, a little more than a year removed from watching the Terrapins spoil an undefeated season in the first round of the postseason, will face Army or Cornell in next weekend’s semifinal at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium.

“What a goofy year,” Corrigan said. “What a journey this has been.”

Sean Rogers scored three goals and Scott Rodgers stopped eight shots for the Fighting Irish (9-6), who will make only their second final four appearance in the program’s 30-season history.

The first one was a breakthrough. This was flat-out unexpected.

Notre Dame played well early in the season, beating Duke, Loyola and Denver while building a reputable resume. But the Irish struggled in the second half, losing four of six heading into the postseason.

Their schedule wrapped up a week before most teams, and so they could do little but practice in hopes the selection committee would offer them a reprieve.

It did, and upsets of Princeton and Maryland earned Notre Dame a place in the final weekend of the year.

“When you have to come out and practice and you don’t know your fate, whether you’re in or you’re out, it’s kind of tough,” Rodgers said. “We had a good group of seniors and we kind of pushed these guys and I felt like that week we didn’t know what our fate was. We came out and
went hard. For the seniors and the upperclassmen, it was, ‘This could be our last shot to practice.’ That preparation prepared us for this point.”

The first rule of Project Mayhem: don't ask questions.

* MD1 Tournament Central
* WD1 Tournament Central

Notre Dame pacified a Maryland team that hadn’t produced a clunker all spring -- until the worst possible time.

The Terps (12-4) got no goals from starting attackmen Grant Catalino, Will Yeatman and Ryan Young, who combined for 13 shots. Toss in Maryland’s first midfield, and the Terps’ offensive starters were a meager 2-for-25.

Brian Phipps made 13 saves in his final game at Maryland.

“I’ve never had a team play harder,” Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. “This was not about effort. It’s about as disappointing a loss as I’ve ever been a part of, because we didn’t want this season to end. This team, in all my years of coaching, was my favorite.”

This probably will rank among Corrigan’s most memorable, too, particularly after the Irish produced a smart, if not aesthetically pleasing, game.

After some unsettled play in the first half, Notre Dame set about controlling tempo, doing so by dominating the middle of the field with the aid of Andrew Irving’s seven first-half ground balls.

Maryland couldn’t run nearly as much as it wanted, and when it did, often found a way to miss the cage entirely. Meanwhile, the Irish simply picked their spots, milking the clock and inching ever closer to Memorial Day weekend.

“We thought to start with, we had to give our defense a chance and we had to keep ourselves out of transition and we had to keep ourselves out of the penalty box and allow our defense to see if we had the matchups we thought we might have,” Corrigan said.

And the Irish did, rendering their midseason doldrums as little more than a memory.

“We really were just hoping we would get that chance to play in the tournament, because we felt like our best lacrosse was in front of us,” Corrigan said. “The guys were working hard and were pretty focused on the way we needed to play. I’ve got to be honest. I did a very bad job of coaching this team. I did a terrible job of coaching this team in the middle part of the year. The fact we didn’t play better was no one’s fault more than my own.”

But Notre Dame did recover, enough to win games at Princeton in back-to-back weeks. Corrigan ruefully joked about not having the option to return next week.

Nonetheless, he’ll bring a stout defense anchored by the burly Rodgers back east next weekend. After yielding 10 goals in the first two rounds, there’s little question just why the Irish will continue
to play on.

“We like that pressure,” Rodgers said. “When we went up 5-1, I was talking to [defenseman] Kevin [Ridgway] and said ‘This is our time right now. We can show everyone what we got and just buckle down. I think we had a great game plan. The boys let me see good shots, I stole a couple and it was good. It was a good day.”

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