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Men’s Lacrosse: League contest a mile high

Tim Dougherty | Thursday, April 13, 2006

No. 9 Notre Dame will face its toughest three-day stretch of the year this weekend as it heads to Colorado to battle No. 18 Denver Friday in Denver before traveling south for an Easter Sunday showdown with Air Force in Colorado Springs.

The two league contests make up the middle of four straight conference road games for the Irish that provide an opportunity for Notre Dame (7-2, 1-0 GWLL) to seize control of the GWLL standings. Along with Ohio State (4-4) and the Irish, Denver (8-4) and Air Force (6-5) sit atop the league standings.

Two wins will help Notre Dame keep the league’s top spot – and a possible automatic NCAA tournament bid – with two games remaining in the conference season.

The Irish are coming off a disappointing 9-8 win at Butler Saturday, in which they failed to break away from the Bulldogs (3-7, 0-1 GWLL) thanks to inconsistent execution that kept them from putting the ball in the net.

“The word that we are using this week is relentless,” Irish coach Kevin Corrigan said. “We have to be relentless in the pursuit of the execution we’re looking for. It’s something that doesn’t snap into place. It’s something that you have to keep working at.”

Though Notre Dame holds an 8-1 advantage over Denver in the series history, Denver won the last meeting 9-6 last season at Moose Krause Stadium. Friday’s game in Denver will be about more than revenge. The Pioneers are the final ranked foe for the Irish this year and should provide the toughest hurdle they need to clear to be able to take the league title for the first time since 2002.

Because of this, although Corrigan and his staff have been preparing game plans for both teams, they are focusing the players’ attentions solely on Denver this week.

“We can’t prepare for Air Force until we take care of Denver,” he said. “It means our timeframe for prep for Air Force is short. The coaches are taking care of that. But we want the players concentrating on Denver. We’ll look at Air Force on Saturday morning.”

Corrigan said Denver plays a bolder style of lacrosse than the Irish usually see.

“The thing about Denver is they try to get you into a game you’re not used to playing,” Corrigan said. “They play a chaotic defensive style that tries to get you with pressure and double teams. But then, on the other end, they’re not in a hurry on the offensive side.”

The Pioneers enter the contest with the fifth-highest scoring offense in the country at 11.25 goals per game. Corrigan believes the key to shutting down the high-powered Denver offense will be found in transition play, an area where Notre Dame has outplayed its opponents with an .800 success rate in clearing, compared to its opponents’ rate of .690.

“Their offense comes from their defense a lot,” Corrigan said. “They’re creating turnovers and converting them. Keeping them out of transition is the key to holding them down, and that starts on the other end of the field.”

Corrigan said he believes the Irish will be successful if they can control the game tempo they are accustomed to playing.

“[I]mposing your style on them is important,” he said. “[We] don’t want to play a reactionary game.”

Senior co-captain defenseman D.J. Driscoll said he thinks the Irish’s ninth-ranked scoring defense (6.89 goals per game) can contain the Pioneer offense by eliminating the mistakes they made against Butler.

“Butler kind of gave us a wakeup call,” Driscoll said. “Maybe some kids were looking past them to Denver. But we have to treat every game like its win or go home because so many teams are looking to win the league.”

Regardless of the outcome of the Denver game, the Irish will have to regroup and prepare themselves for Sunday’s contest against Air Force. Though the Falcons play a totally different style than Denver, Corrigan said the coaches’ preparation will ensure the Irish are not surprised.

“At this point in the year, we’ve seen everything we’re going to see,” Corrigan said. “There’s not that much new under the season. We’re going to see some zone from Air Force – maybe a healthy dose of it. It’s a matter of taking [Saturday] to get our legs back and refresh ourselves a little bit.”

Driscoll is confident in the Irish’s ability to quickly refocus their attention, especially since the Irish faced a similar situation two years ago when No. 18 Notre Dame downed Air Force 12-2 and followed that with a 14-13 win over No. 17 Denver.

“We’ve been grinding at it in practice since the fall,” Driscoll said. “Mentally it’s just concentrating on the task at hand and taking it one step at a time. Just getting our legs back is just going to be our biggest problem [preparing for Air Force]. I think being a senior, going out there two years ago and having the experience out there will help.”

Notre Dame’s 14-13 overtime win against Air Force last year was the Irish’s 17th straight against the Falcons.

If there is one positive the Irish can take from their Butler win last Saturday, Corrigan said that they will be ready if either of this weekend’s games come down to another nail biter.

“We’ve certainly established the fact that in the fourth quarter of the game, we’re not going to fold up and back away from the challenge,” Corrigan said.

Corrigan expects similar results this weekend.

“The biggest thing is for us to play smart play and with discipline and to play confidently,” Corrigan said. “We need to go out there and play loosely and make the plays we need to play. I’m very confident in our guys right now and how much they care and how hard they’re working so I feel very good about where we are going into the weekend.”