May 24, 2012

Lambrecht: Notre Dame Offense Peaking At Right Time

by Gary Lambrecht |

In two tournament wins over Yale and Virginia, Notre Dame is averaging 12.5 goals and shooting 43.1 percent.
© TD Paulius

When you think of Notre Dame lacrosse, you think of great defense at the heart of its identity. You think of exceptional goalkeepers, such as Kirk Howell, who led the Fighting Irish to their first NCAA tournament semifinal in 2001, or Joey Kemp, who nearly got the Irish there in 2008, or Scott Rodgers, who carried Notre Dame to its first NCAA title game in 2010.

Things look pretty much the same in South Bend this spring. Notre Dame is camped atop the Division I rankings in scoring defense, having allowed only 6.27 goals per game. Junior goalie John Kemp, the younger brother of Joey and a lock as a first-team All-American, stands atop his competition in goals-allowed average (6.23) and save percentage (.636).

But as 24th-year coach Kevin Corrigan's fourth-seeded Fighting Irish rolls into Gillette Stadium on Saturday to face top-seeded Loyola in an NCAA tournament semifinal that shapes up as an intriguing clash of styles, Notre Dame holds what might be the wild card of the entire weekend.

The Irish no longer look like the team that can't shoot straight or score. No longer is Notre Dame dragging around an offense that, on a good day, would miss three out of four shots and struggle to reach eight goals.

Through two tournament victories over Yale and defending national champion Virginia, Notre Dame is averaging 12.5 goals and shooting 43.1 percent.

Memo to Loyola, as well as Duke and Maryland, the other final four participants: If Notre Dame (13-2) keeps up that kind of offense the Irish will be taking the first Memorial Day victory lap in the program's Division I history.

The most dangerous part of Notre Dame's awakening is how the Irish are a study in depth, balance and unpredictability, three things that come in very handy when a team is trying to win twice in three days in hot, humid weather on championship weekend.

In Sunday's 12-10 dismantling of Virginia, Notre Dame ran three midfield lines and got seven points from its second midfield, led by Steve Murphy's two goals and two assists. Murphy entered the game with eight points in 14 games.

Starting senior midfielder Max Pfeifer entered the Virginia game with eight goals in 2012. He dropped three on the Cavaliers. Sophomore midfielder Jim Marlatt, who leads the team with 30 points and burned Yale for three goals and two assists, was barely a scoring factor on Sunday with one assist.

Sensing a pattern here?

"We don't have any idea more than you [media] do about who is going to step up in the next game or the next quarter," Corrigan said. "It seems like every game or every half it changes who we're getting plays from. That most gratifying thing about that is it means everybody is out there trying to make a play.

"We're feeling good because we're playing a lot of people, and we felt like that was going to be to our advantage [against Virginia]. There's nobody on our team you look at and say, 'Look at the numbers that guy has.' But we seem to find a way to be up by one at the end. I'm happy we're finishing the ball like we are."

There is nothing flashy about the Notre Dame offense. The Irish run a lot of plays through senior attackman Sean Rogers, who scored twice to increase his team goal-scoring lead to 21 – less than half of the goals scored by either Mike Sawyer or Eric Lusby of high-scoring Loyola (16-1).

The Irish screen hard, cut hard, pass crisply and play unselfishly, since they must. They have no dazzling, one-on-one scorers. They pick their spots smartly in transition, and they probably don't get enough credit for their first-step quickness on offense or their ability to push into 40-shot territory.

Above all, they hear the sharp-edged, sharp-tongued Corrigan in their ear about taking the best shot to play to that killer D. Missing a good look is one thing. Carrying the ball into a turnover or forcing a dumb shot that results in a turnover or an easy save is unacceptable.

"[Corrigan] doesn't sugar-coat things, and I love that about him," Marlatt said. "The easiest way to give up transition [goals] is to take bad shots. On our team that just doesn't make sense, because our six-on-six defense is unreal and our goalie is unbelievable. We've actually been running good offense for most of the year. But our shots have started to fall."

"We call it 'ego-less clarity,' or being able to accept what is. We're finding that we're a team that can play with confidence while accepting its limitations," Corrigan added. "When you're only averaging eight goals a game [before the NCAAs] nobody over-schemes against you. Maybe that's a good thing."

Make no mistake. Notre Dame's calling card remains that defense, which is the only unit to finish ranked in the nation's top five in scoring allowed for the past six seasons. The team's best player is Kemp, who might have to stop 15 or more Loyola shots to get the Irish to Monday's final against the winner of the Duke-Maryland semifinal.

But keep your eyes on the Notre Dame players at the other end of the field. That suddenly productive group might prove to be the difference in Foxborough.

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