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DeFranks: Despite loss, 2012 is still different for ND (April 26)

Matthew DeFranks | Thursday, April 26, 2012

In 2011, Notre Dame lost to Northwestern, Loyola and Syracuse. In 2012, Notre Dame lost to Northwestern, Loyola and Syracuse.

But if you think the story is the same as a year ago, you would be wrong – dead wrong.

Last season’s book told the story of a preseason top-10 squad with an experienced coach and two program-changing All-Americans. The plot fell apart as the team dropped games to inferior teams and missed the NCAA tournament.

This season’s novel tells the story of a preseason top-20 team with a new head coach and unproven and youthful contributors. But as the season has worn on, the Irish have climbed up the rankings instead of sliding down.

So, simply put, despite the loss to top-ranked Northwestern, Notre Dame is still headed in the right direction.

The difference can only be one thing – Christine Halfpenny.

Don’t get me wrong, former coach Tracy Coyne did great things for the program she initially started, including a Final Four trip in 2006. It’s just that Halfpenny has changed the culture – and, thus, the results – around the program.

The energetic former William & Mary coach has brought both a younger vibe and a high-scoring spread offense to the team that has translated to a 12-3 overall record and a 5-2 Big East mark.

Need proof Halfpenny’s system works?

The Irish have scored 10 or fewer goals just three times this season while last year they saw seven such performances. Despite the loss of All-American midfielder Shaylyn Blaney, the Notre Dame offense is averaging two more goals per game. Six Irish players have registered more than 20 points so far this season, highlighted by senior attack Maggie Tamasitis’ 50 assists and 19 goals.

For as much firepower and flashiness as the Irish offense possesses, the defense is stellar as well, anchored by junior goalkeeper Ellie Hilling. Now with two years of starting experience under her belt, Hilling has strung together career performances this season in helping the Irish to a 4-0 record in games decided by two goals or fewer.

And the stats are only part of the story – the results are the other part.

The Irish have taken care of business against teams they are on the same level with. In beating the Stanfords, the Vanderbilts, the Cornells and the Ohio States of the women’s lacrosse world, Notre Dame is finally playing up to its potential. While the overall success of the program may be judged by its performance against elite competition, wins over equal competition show much-needed and wanted progress.

So don’t worry about a loss to Northwestern – Halfpenny and the Irish are headed in the right direction.

In 2011, the Irish missed the NCAA tournament. In 2012, the final chapter has yet to be written.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu