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Irish not handling role well

Matt Mooney | Tuesday, April 27, 2004

You know, the women’s lacrosse team wasn’t always the favorite. There was a time, way back in, oh say February, when they didn’t have the cares they have now. They were just hoping for a return to the NCAA tournament after missing it last year.But after a 10-0 start, expectations soared. The team began filling out its application for the Members Only Club of collegiate women’s lacrosse. Yet there was still one test to pass. To become a member, a team must first learn to succeed despite the proverbial target now permanently stamped to its back. And after four subsequent losses – some good games, some not – the Irish are still trying to cope with that bullseye.It wasn’t always like this, with the team weighed down by achievement. At the beginning of the season, Notre Dame had the freedom of the underdog, released from the manacles of expectation. And the underdog can play with a reckless abandon, taking chances with impunity. Mistakes are expected from an underdog. This type of freedom is what allowed the Irish to beat some high-profile opponents early in the year. Duke, James Madison and Stanford all went down because the Irish had yet to establish themselves during the season.But there’s something about a 10-0 start and a No. 2 ranking that makes other teams pay more attention. And all of a sudden, Notre Dame’s opponents seem to have a little extra adrenaline rush that the Irish had not seen before. It was the same adrenaline rush that they had used while playing a top-ranked team. But now it is used against them. That little intangible is what made the difference in the heart-breaking one-goal losses to Georgetown and Johns Hopkins. And it will happen with all the Irish opponents. Out of nowhere, opposing stars start rising to the occasion when before there had been no occasion. Teams like Rutgers, previously stuck in .500 limbo, begin playing like a top 10 team as they did while limiting the Irish to one second-half goal on Sunday. After the loss to Johns Hopkins on Friday, Notre Dame captain Meredith Simon said that she wanted her team to play like an underdog again, with nothing to lose.Simon had just discovered something that happens to every successful underdog – they become the favorite. And the favorite has its own set of challenges completely different from those of the underdog. The favorite must battle the onset of complacency and a lack of motivation. It’s tough to compete with a fearless attitude on a tightrope of success when there is nowhere to go but down. One slip and you hit the concrete only to be surrounded by critics who don’t want to help but demand to know why the heck you slipped.But the great teams do compete fearlessly. Look at Princeton who has won back-to-back national championships. They are the best because they have transformed their fear into swagger. It is the earnest hope of every underdog going into a big game to walk onto the field and see fear in their opponents’ eyes. That is what Rutgers saw against Notre Dame. That is why the Irish committed two crucial turnovers at the end of the game allowing the Scarlet Knights to score the tying and go-ahead goals in the closing minute. To get into the Members Only group of teams, Notre Dame must get to the point where they are the intimidators. Like Princeton, they need to show they will not back down, especially against the likes of a mediocre team like Rutgers. But an Irish recovery will be even more difficult. Now their opponents know they are down and know they are afraid.The Irish stand at a critical juncture of their season. With two big games against No. 13 Syracuse followed by tenth-ranked Vanderbilt to close out their season, the Irish can go one of two ways. They can stand up, embrace their success, and dominate opponents as they did early in the season. Or they can resort back to their pre-season role as an underdog. The result of these two games will likely indicate how Notre Dame will perform in the NCAA tournament, a place where an (under)dog gets thrown a bone once in awhile, but usually watches the proven teams feast on a championship.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.Contact Matt Mooney at mmooney@nd.edu