October 22, 2013

30 in 30: Will Senior Lessons Stick With Young Irish?

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com

A young Notre Dame squad hopes to acelerate the learning curve for its underclassmen going into the spring.
© AJ Mast

Fall ball is about the freshmen. Typically, if a senior class can impart some kind of wisdom about college, life, or dealing with college life, it has done its job.

Nowhere was that more clear than at Notre Dame, where this season a highly-touted freshman class learned a life lesson about facing adversity from its seniors. That it occurred nowhere near the lacrosse field is kind of the point.

The Irish’s eight seniors, along with one cheerleader, had moved into an off-campus house in South Bend this summer. On the first football Saturday of the year, that house burned down. Everyone was ok, but possessions were destroyed and the girls had to find a new place to live.

"They learned a life lesson," said Notre Dame coach Christine Halfpenny. "You finally move off campus and you have a vision of what your year is going to be like... Realistically, sometimes you have to adjust your plans.”

ND student affairs was on the scene immediately and began helping to relocate the seniors to student housing, where they would spend the first month of their final season living like freshmen again. As an unintended side effect, it also exposed Notre Dame's actual freshmen to daily on-campus reminders about overcoming adversity.

“The fire didn’t take away our memories,” Halfpenny said. “It’s built some character into our senior class. It was really remarkable for our younger players to see how they handle it.”

After five weeks, the seniors found new off-campus accommodations. But there are few athletic adjustments greater than going from high school to Notre Dame, so that September life lesson could prove invaluable to Notre Dame’s new players off the field. Which is a good thing because, on the field, Notre Dame’s freshmen have the chance to be something special.  

The Irish spent the fall mostly playing their 17 healthy freshmen and sophomores, while working in a smattering of juniors. The main goal was simply to get the freshmen adjusted to college.

 “We’re not trying to win the fall ball national championship,” Halfpenny said.

Even though ND’s freshmen probably could. The Irish boast a Top 10 recruiting class, highlighted by Courtney Fortunato, widely-regarded as the best freshman in the country. So far the the All-Long Island attacker from Northport, N.Y., has looked every bit as good as advertised.

“She’s raised the creativity level for us,” Halfpenny said. “It’s been really fun to see her work with our senior class.”

The influx of new young talent -- it is ND’s second consecutive 10-person class -- has allowed Halfpenny to turn up the tempo on what was already a high-octane offense. The Irish plan to rotate 18 players in and out to stay fresh. Athletic younger players like freshman Alex Dalton and sophomore Hannah Hartman have made that transition easy.

“They haven’t disappointed,” Halfpenny said. “They’ve lived up to all of the media frenzy that was out there. They’ve surpassed all my expectations.”

The Irish will also get younger in the cage, where Allie Murray takes over for Ellie Hilling, one of the most accomplished players in program history. Murray, a junior, is not exactly an unknown. She starred alongside classmate Barbara Sullivan and Fortunato on the U.S. U-19 team in 2011.

“She’s a gamer,” Halfpenny said. “Very athletic and really agile. She’s very disciplined right now. She’s had a great fall.” 

Notre Dame wrapped up its fall season on Friday and after midterms the players now have a week off to relax (for some in a new home) and rest up before individual work start up next week. Then the real tests begin. 

Notre Dame moves to the Atlantic Coast Conference this spring. Seven of the eight ACC teams reached the NCAA tournament last year and three were at the Final Four. Despite being situated 700 miles from the ocean that the league is named for, the Irish, who went 11-5 last season, should fit right in.

“We’re just starting to scratch the surface,” Halfpenny said. “It’s been really neat to mesh my vision with all their talent. We’re at a special time at Notre Dame with the group we have now. I can’t predict the future, but I’m really excited to see what we have in store.”

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