April 30, 2009

Big East Champ Notre Dame Sheds Inconsistency

by Brian Delaney | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Goalie Erin Goodman sparked a revitalized Notre Dame defense to the Big East title last weekend. The No. 6-ranked Irish wrap up their regular season at No. 20-ranked Cornell on Saturday before moving onto the NCAA tournament.
© TD Paulius/Midwest Lacrosse Photography

Until last weekend, when Notre Dame won its first Big East Conference championship in women's lacrosse, the Fighting Irish's season was defined by maddening, prolonged inconsistencies.

Consider:

- In an early test on Feb. 20, the Irish fell behind 11-2 at halftime and lost 21-5 to three-time defending champ and top-ranked Northwestern.

- In a nonconference road game March 7, Dartmouth opened up leads of 6-0 and 8-2 in the first half before ND rallied for a 16-11 win.

- Against Big East rival Syracuse on April 11, the Irish fell behind 11-1 and lost 14-13 after a furious comeback.

- Four days after the Syracuse loss, Vanderbilt jumped out to a 10-2 lead in the first half, wavered, recovered and put away the Irish 18-11.

Finally, longtime coach Tracy Coyne said, something clicked with her players. The stark reality of that old cliché -- "play a complete game" -- sunk in.

"We really benefited from Vanderbilt," she said. "Basically we got our asses kicked, and the kids were ticked off about it. And we needed that to happen for our kids to take the next step."

A step like the program's first Big East championship.

With Georgetown earning the top seed and a semifinal game against Louisville, second-seeded Syracuse and third-seeded Notre Dame had the toughest draw. Winning the conference tournament would require a pair of top-10 wins, and for the Irish, that had not happened this year.

Still, led by their defense, of all things, they found a way.

Notre Dame forced 13 Syracuse turnovers in Friday's semifinal, and All-American Jillian Byers broke a school record for points in a conference tournament game with seven. Senior Erin Goodman made seven saves in a 16-10 victory.

Two days later, Notre Dame asserted itself in the first half with a 9-2 lead, and Goodman made tough stops down the stretch to earn most outstanding player honors. For a team whose defense has been oft-overlooked, it was a moment to remember.

"It was awesome," junior defender Rachael Guerrera said. "When they started announcing the stats for most outstanding player, I just started freaking out. I knew it was Erin. The entire defense felt she completely deserved it, and it was a longtime coming. It was definitely a testament to the whole defense, because we played so well as a unit."

That included the attack and midfield, Guerrera said.

"Jill Byers comes back on defense with us and gets a caused turnover," she said. "That's huge. It wasn't just about our settled defense, but defense all over the field."

If that play continues, Notre Dame -- now ranked sixth nationally -- could pose a dangerous threat to any opponent in the NCAA tournament. Coyne's 2006 club reached the final four, and there's little question this year's team is capable of matching that type of run.

"It gives us a lot of confidence," Goodman said. "For me, it was kind of unbelievable. A lot of us were kind of in shock a little bit. Even though we've won a lot of games, we've never won the big game, and we finally did."

Notre Dame has one test left before the postseason -- a road trip to No. 20 Cornell on Saturday. It's a game Coyne is happy to have on the schedule, considering what the Irish are trying to put behind them.

Right now, their primary goal is to sustain the edge that won them the conference title.

"I think the past two years, we had some really difficult losses," Coyne said. "That drives us to still accomplish things... Coming of a weekend where you beat two top-10, well-respected, archrival teams, it's easy to become complacent. We're really trying hard to avoid that."

If they can, they'll keep those inconsistent performances exactly where they want them -- in the rearview mirror.


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