January 24, 2011

Listen: Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan

Listen: Notre Dame midfielder David Earl

Naysayers Nothing New for Notre Dame

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Champion Challenge

You've got to see senior midfielder David Earl play to appreciate him, Notre Dame coaches say. Lacrosse fans in Florida will get their first chance Sunday at Champion Challenge, a US Lacrosse event. The Irish play Team USA.

Coming off an improbable run to the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse championship game, Notre Dame will begin its hopeful journey back there Sunday at Champion Challenge, a US Lacrosse event, with an exhibition game against the U.S. men's national team.

Few expect the Irish to be as good without Scott Rodgers, the NCAA championship MVP goalie who will stand opposite them when he makes his Team USA debut in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

But naysayers are nothing new for Notre Dame.

When the Irish went undefeated in the 2009 regular season, they said it was because of a soft schedule, an assertion supposedly affirmed by their uninspiring loss to Maryland in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Then last year, Notre Dame barely qualified for postseason. Some bemoaned that the Irish got in over teams like Georgetown, Drexel or Yale. But Rodgers got hot, and Notre Dame upset Princeton, Maryland and Cornell to reach its first NCAA final. The Irish lost to Duke on long pole faceoff man CJ Costabile's goal just five seconds into overtime.

Which brings it back to Sunday, the first of two trips to Florida for Notre Dame this season, both on national TV. The 1:30 p.m. game against Team USA will air on delay on ESPNU at 10:30 p.m. Three weeks later, Notre Dame will open its 2011 regular season with a championship game rematch against Duke in Jacksonville on the flagship ESPN.

Actually, the Irish started reloading just three days after their 2010 NCAA championship game loss. Rather than disperse for the summer, Notre Dame took its entire team -- graduating seniors included -- to Japan for a series of friendly games. The Irish defeated the upstart Japanese team, 13-8. Team Japan would go on to win fourth place in the FIL World Championships in Manchester, England, its best-ever finish in international competition.

Notre Dame would move on, too.

"In a lot of ways, maybe that was a very healthy thing. We didn't have a chance to lick our wounds, lay around and bemoan anything," said Irish head coach Kevin Corrigan. "That gave us a chance to celebrate the accomplishments of 2010 and, at the same time, begin to prepare for 2011."

Zach Brenneman and David Earl give the Irish one of the best midfield combinations in the country. Big East coaches last week named Brenneman the conference's preseason offensive player of the year. But Corrigan has said repeatedly that Earl is Notre Dame's most valuable player, even when Rodgers was on board.

Said Corrigan: "Dave Earl would be immensely valuable to us if he just played defense. And he'd be immensely valuable to us if he just played wing on faceoffs and getting ground balls in the middle of the field. And he'd be immensely valuable to us if he was just playing offense. But it's the fact that he can do all of those things at such a high level -- the fact that he can play without the ball, the fact that he can invert or go from up top or on the wing , the fact that he is a tough kid that doesn't want to leave the field.

"He wants to be on man-up. We struggled with last year, because we wanted him on man-up, but we had him on man-down. He's an excellent, all-around kind of throwback middie in the sense that there's not much he can't do and there's not much he doesn't want to do. You have to drag him off the field."

High praise for a guy who was a second-line midfielder, who scored just 16 goals before an explosive five-goal performance in the Irish's NCAA tournament first-round win at Princeton. But as a full-time, first-line midfielder alongside Brenneman (29g, 13a) and Max Pfeiffer (10g, 8a), Earl should flourish even more than he did last year, when he led all short sticks in ground balls (49) and caused turnovers (13).

"A lot of kids on our team have high expectations," said Earl, a senior who is also pursuing post-graduate opportunities to play Division I hockey. "We'll be disappointed if we don't make it back to that championship game."

Still, even within Notre Dame's own conference, the naysayers remain. The Irish are ranked seventh in Lacrosse Magazine's preseason poll.

"They'll find out," said a rival Big East coach, "was it the goalie or was it them?"

To that question, Earl said new goalkeeper John Kemp -- the younger brother of former Irish All-American Joey Kemp and former Fairfield All-American CJ Kemp, both goalies -- will provide the answer. As will the deep defensive corps Notre Dame boasts with Kevin Ridgway, Sam Barnes, Jake Brems, Kevin Randall and long stick midfielder Andrew Irving.

"Scotty was a great goalie, I'll venture that. He was a big part of us getting there," Earl said. "But another big part of us getting there was the defensive system... [Kemp] is a great goalie, as well. His brother I played with my freshman year was a first team All-American. I think he's headed down that path. He's going to surprise some people."

It starts Sunday against his former mentor and the U.S. national team at Champion Challenge.

Champion Challenge, a US Lacrosse event featuring the U.S. men's and women's national teams against top college programs, returns to ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Jan. 29-30, 2011. Click here for more information, including game and clinic schedules.

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