May 30, 2010

Domino Theory: Irish 'Machine' Awaits Duke

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

"We think of ourselves like a machine," Notre Dame Scott Rodgers says of the Irish defense, "and everyone has their part. When all the parts are working, we're pretty unstoppable."

© John Strohsacker/

BALTIMORE, Md. -- Notre Dame’s defense invokes Cold War rhetoric from assistant coach Gerry Byrne.

“It’s like socialism,” he said Saturday. “We all contribute to the good of the defense.”

Scott Rodgers is the star. Kevin Ridgway is the hammer. Kevin Randall is the sickle.

Karl Marx himself could not have asked for Rodgers to better characterize the system.

“We think of ourselves like a machine,” Rodgers said Sunday, “and everyone has their part. When all the parts are working, we’re pretty unstoppable.”

The Irish have been quite the killjoys in this postseason. They sucked the new-car smell out of Chris Bates’ revamped Princeton offense, effectively ended Dave Cottle’s career at Maryland and made Cornell’s Rob Pannell and Ryan Hurley disappear.

They’ll try to do the same Monday against Ned Crotty and Max Quinzani, two lynchpins in a dynamic Duke offense that would strike fear into most defenses.

Not Notre Dame. Not after it already neutralized the Blue Devils earlier this season when the Irish won in Durham.

“Duke is so good, they got themselves into the tournament and us into the tournament,” said Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan, whose team narrowly qualified for the NCAA tournament with a 7-6 regular season record.

Both Duke and Notre Dame have slumped, rebounded and evolved to reach the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse championship game Monday (3:30 p.m., ESPN), but the Irish’s confidence in their defense has never wavered.

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

* MD1 Tournament Central
* WD1 Tournament Central

Their marching orders have never changed: play position; don’t throw wrap, trail or over-the-head checks; keep all contact between chest and hips.

Trust your teammates.

“Scheme is one of those words I hate using. We do what we do,” Byrne said. “We had seven different guys during the game guarding Pannell and seven different guys guarding Hurley. It’s the way we slide and recover. Hell, you might end up guarding them.”

Many defensemen being recruited out of high school might balk at such stipulations. They want the one-on-one match-up, the opportunity to make a yard sale of opponents’ sticks.

“We’ve only had four defensemen come for a visit since Sept. 1,” Byrne said. “That’s a weekend for some places.”

“For a defenseman, we’re not very flashy, but we get the job done,” said Ridgway, a junior. “Everyone understands their roles and what they are supposed to do. Everyone has bought into that system.”

Individualism, one of the most celebrated components of lacrosse, has its place in South Bend – but only within the disciplines that have been established by Byrne and head coach Kevin Corrigan, who talked about how Notre Dame’s players have advanced to the program’s first NCAA championship game “without the intrusion of ego.”

Take Andrew Irving, the clever, crafty long pole from McLean, Va. Despite his vast talents, he played only sparingly as a freshman in 2008, a faceoff here or there. His role increased in 2009 and he is now regarded as one of the top long-stick midfielders in the country.

Irving’s wing play on faceoffs has been crucial in getting the Irish the possessions they so miserly value. He’s one of the few Notre Dame players with a license to throw checks, evidenced by his 26 caused turnovers and 70 ground balls. He even scored a fourth-quarter goal to help put away Cornell in the Irish’s 12-7 win Saturday in the NCAA semifinals.

“Andrew Irving plays with a lot of flare in his game. But he didn’t play his first year because he had too much flare, and wasn’t playing the way we wanted him to play. He just wasn’t ready,” Byrne said. “We try to find the balance to allow him to do the creative things he can with the ball. You can’t do that until you take care of six-on-six and all that.”

Notre Dame’s defense keeps opponents away from the middle of the field and leaves the rest to Rodgers, the 6-foot-5, 254-pound goalkeeper who takes up a lot of cage. His 16 saves Saturday, including eight in the first quarter as the Irish settled in, were instrumental in their advancement.

Rodgers had plenty of time to learn the Notre Dame way. The top goalie of his recruiting class, he spent three years backing up All-American Joey Kemp. In 2009, his first season as a starter, Rodgers led the Irish to an undefeated regular season and was named a first team All-American.

For three years, Rodgers maintained that hulking physique and picked Kemp’s brain about how to engineer the Notre Dame defense. “He taught me a lot about keeping poise,” Rodgers said, “especially when the other team goes on a run.”

That tutelage came full circle this year, when the fifth-year senior suffered a torn hamstring that forced freshman John Kemp -- Joey’s younger brother – into action.

Rodgers said he felt like “a fifth-year senior should feel. Old.” Win or lose, he’s ready to move on. Kemp will be the next cog in the machine.

Another domino will fall.

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