March 8, 2012

Halfpenny Has Notre Dame Running Full Speed

by Laurel Pfahler |

Maggie Tamasitis (team-high 13 points) was one of seven Notre Dame seniors that visited new coach Chris Halfpenny's house upon her arrival, sharing time with Halfpenny's yellow Labrador and setting out team goals.
© Notre Dame athletics 

Five years of work crammed into seven months.

That's how first-year Notre Dame coach Chris Halfpenny feels the transition went with her new team as the Fighting Irish prepared for this season.

Halfpenny took over for Tracy Coyne – the 16-year program's only other coach – in late July and has the Irish off to a 3-0 start, including a 16-7 win Sunday over then-No. 10 Ohio State. But even she admits things weren't so peachy in the beginning.

"It was light speed," said Halfpenny, who guided William and Mary to four 10-win seasons in five years there before taking the job at Notre Dame. "I'm not going to lie, the fall was very hard. I was concerned for the seniors. How were we going to come together? Ultimately there was a lot of trust involved, a lot of patience involved. It was about everyone deciding to have a little bit of blind faith, and that has allowed us to see some 'special' signs."

After the late hire, Halfpenny moved in the same week as freshmen first stepped on campus. Her first order of business was a meeting with the seniors to outline goals for their final season.

The seven seniors on the team convened at Halfpenny's house, greeted by her curious 100-pound yellow Labrador and a giant cookie cake. There they discussed how to build a championship team for a memorable season.

"We've spread out a lot of team-building throughout the year, but that meeting with the seniors was paramount to me because we wanted to give them a lot of accountability and ownership over the team, and so far, so good," Halfpenny said. "Our senior leadership has been nothing short of incredible, and I think it's gotten us to this confident place we are at right now."

Senior attacker Maggie Tamasitis said it was easy to trust Halfpenny because the coach actually recruited her to come to William and Mary back when she was in high school, so she already was familiar with her successful track record.

The same was true for many of the incoming freshmen. Halfpenny said when she was announced as the new coach, some of them even dug up the hand-written letters Halfpenny had sent their junior year of high school.

"When things were tough, [the freshmen] were our naive bliss," Halfpenny said. "They would just look around and kind of go, 'Well, I guess this is what we do.' There was nothing else for them to compare to, so they were kind of all-in, and they were such a talented group coming in, they fit right in. It was a nice transition."

Halfpenny brought about several changes the returning players had to adjust to, most notably a pressure-from-behind defense, a fastbreak offense and a high-intensity practice pace.

It's a style of play that has allowed the Irish to outscore opponents 50-28 the first three games, with sophomore Lindsay Powell recording a team-high 11 goals and junior Jaimie Morrison adding nine.

"It was tough in the fall to get used to the high-intensity, high-paced practices, but once we got used to it, it was a pretty easy transition," said Tamasitis, who leads the team with 13 points, 11 coming as assists. "We have been a lot more high-paced at practice. That's definitely a big difference. We are constantly getting feedback from her and talking with her about everything, which I think is awesome. We do a lot of individual work, and everything is very honest."

Halfpenny and her staff introduced the up-tempo pace at practice by implementing the "Blue/Gold Challenge" early on, breaking the players up into two teams – Blue or Gold – and creating five categories in which they could earn points throughout the year.

The Challenge was something she started at William and Mary as a way to build a competitive practice environment, and points can be earned individually in practice, strength and conditioning and in the classroom, as well as through organization and team-building exercises.

The team with the most points at the end of the season will be crowned champion, and the losing team gets the first pick in the freshmen draft next year.

"It's been awesome for our team," Halfpenny said. "It's a great way to be effective in practice, and we actually have to cool down after a little bit because it's a very competitive group."

Tamasitis said the more intense practices have led to better success in games and have helped develop better chemistry among the players.

"It's so competitive," she said. "You just want to win so bad. When you get to a game, you are competitive against another team, so conditioning to that in practice, it's really translated into being more competitive games."

The Irish have enough versatility and speed to make Halfpenny's style effective, and it helped that the team already was stepping up its pressure on defense last year. A total of 11 players have scored goals, and goalkeeper Ellie Hilling posts a 9.33 goals against average and .533 save percentage.

"The big thing we are hammering is when you have good fundamentals and you put three or four of them together, you'll get a 'fancy-pants play,'" Halfpenny said. "This group comes in with great fundamentals, and now we continue to work on their overall athletic awareness, field vision, game management, sensing tempo, and that makes everything easier, but also this team has the will to win, which is incredible. A lot of our talent is in the basics, and now we are just trying to put them together and see how far it takes us."

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