April 15, 2011

NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Notebook: Nothing Sexy About Soon-to-Be No. 1 Notre Dame, Just Results

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Sean Rogers' team-high 13 goals on an NCAA-best 52-percent shooting speaks volumes of the discipline with which Notre Dame plays on both ends of the field.

© TD Paulius/Midwest Lacrosse Photography

Notre Dame men's lacrosse coach Kevin Corrigan pays little attention to the Fighting Irish's record or ranking, and he will never apologize for the way they play. The results in South Bend do much of the talking for him. Since the start of the 2007 season, the Irish are 58-15.

One year after they put a memorable stamp on the NCAA tournament with their brand of stifling defense and ball-control offense – culminating in a 6-5, overtime loss to Duke in the lowest-scoring championship game in the tournament's history – the Irish are at it again.

Notre Dame (8-0) should soon be the No. 1 team in Division I, since injury-bothered, offense-challenged Syracuse stumbled against Cornell on Tuesday. And as the last undefeated team standing, the Irish make no attempt to hide their identity.

The Irish are out to slow the tempo and strangle their opponents, primarily by feeding off an experienced, man-to-man defense that allows barely six goals per game and worships proper spacing, smart positioning, well-timed slides, and gives up shots on its terms. Don't be surprised that sophomore goalie John Kemp (second in the NCAA with a .626 save percentage) has smoothly filled the shoes of Scott Rodgers, last year's Most Outstanding Player on Memorial Day weekend. Kemp, who averages 10.25 saves, is the latest anchor in a battle-tested scheme.

And it's not as if the Irish refuse to get out in transition. They will take the quickest path to the goal if the opportunity arises. But Notre Dame will not fire away all day at its opponent, and usually will get the lesser-noticed things right.

Note junior attackman Sean Rogers' team-high 13 goals on an NCAA-best, 52-percent shooting. Note the team's 91-percent success rate on its clearing attempts. Note how the Irish have allowed just seven goals in the second quarter and 10 in the fourth – which speaks to excellent coaching and on-field adjustments. Notre Dame, which almost never permits easy shots on its weak side, has yet to allow an opponent to score in double digits.

"With any team, you have to decide what can we be great at? I hear so many people say that a Syracuse-Virginia game is great lacrosse [because of its run-and-gun, high-scoring nature]. Well, it's one variety of lacrosse," Corrigan said.

"Some of us would be bald and wearing a rubber jacket if we played that way. There's more to building a great team than having the strongest guys who run the fastest and jump the highest. I think having a team with a very high I.Q., that plays good defense and sound, fundamental lacrosse with a lot of discipline is OK, too."

The Irish have beaten Denver, Ohio State and Georgetown each by one goal. Their 7-6 squeaker over the Hoyas last week was no instant classic. But senior defenseman Kevin Ridgway, the designated stopper on a team with the nation's second-ranked defense and 34th-ranked offense, said the Irish were just doing what they do best on most days.

"We played a ton of defense [against Georgetown], and we don't panic in close games. We know we're not the most talented team. We don't try to make crazy plays," Ridgway said. "We have a sense of how we want to play, and teams usually recognize they have to play the way we do."

Hopkins' Dolente gets faceoff facelift

Hopkins faceoff man Matt Dolente credits Jamison Koesterer, the return of the "set" call and hours spent retooling his craft on a Manhattan rooftop for his much-improved percentage this season.

As No. 3 Johns Hopkins and No. 4 Maryland prepare to tee it up for the 107th time in College Park on Saturday night – marking the first time both schools have met while ranked in the top five since 2004 – one storyline focuses on how an underclassmen-driven Blue Jays team (8-2) might fare against senior-laden Maryland (8-2).

But the senior who could have the most impact at Byrd Stadium is Hopkins midfielder Matt Dolente, who has emerged dramatically as a faceoff specialist extraordinaire.

During his first three years as the Blue Jays' primary faceoff man, Dolente won a pedestrian, 48.2 percent of his draws. As a junior, he regressed badly by winning only 45.5 percent and drawing illegal procedure violations on nearly one-third of his face-off attempts.

Dolente has been lights out in 2011. He entered this week leading the NCAA in winning percentage (.702). What in the name of the pinch-and-pop is going on here?

Dolente spread the credit for his resurgence. The hiring of assistant coach and 2007 Hopkins graduate Jamison Koesterer, an outstanding faceoff man in his day, has helped. So has the "set" rule change that caters more to good technique by forcing opposing specialists to be still in their crouches before the faceoff whistle blows, instead of "rolling into" the play in anticipation of the whistle under the old system. It also helps that Dolente is healthy, unlike last year.

Most importantly, Dolente said he re-dedicated himself to his craft and to the game as a whole, after getting embarrassed at times during Hopkins' 7-8 finish in 2010.

"I wasn't working hard enough or putting in enough time. I'm in great shape this year. I had to change the way I was doing things," said Dolente, who regularly practiced alone on the rooftop of the Manhattan apartment building where he lived last summer while interning on Wall Street.

"When you're 7-8 at Hopkins, it kind of gives you a kick in the pants to refocus yourself and your energy on winning," he added. "That means getting yourself in shape, working on your skills, and really understanding the game of lacrosse."

The game-within-a-game between Dolente and Maryland sophomore face-off man Curtis Holmes (.618) promises to be a treat to watch.

Starsia befuddles by some results

Virginia coach Dom Starsia is rarely at a loss for an entertaining insight. Starsia had an amusing take on some of the unpredictable swings of the 2011 season.

Among many examples, there is Maryland, which dropped 20 goals on Georgetown, then surrendered a 4-0 lead at home and fell apart to a young North Carolina team, 11-6. And Syracuse, which put Duke in a 9-2 hole at halftime, then managed only seven, first-half shots in an 11-6 loss to Cornell. Or Villanova, which fell to Syracuse, 5-4, despite getting a grand total of four saves from goalie Billy Hurley.

"What is the truth in college lacrosse?" Starsia asked rhetorically. "I have no idea what the answer is."

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