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Gans: Offense must power team to playoff success (April 13)

Sam Gans | Friday, April 13, 2012

Anyone who follows sports has heard the phrase, “Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.”

For the past two seasons, however, it’s been the opposite for Irish lacrosse.

In 2010, then-fifth year goalie Scott Rodgers carried Notre Dame all the way to the national championship game, before the Irish lost a heartbreaker 6-5 to Duke in overtime. Last season, it was again strong defense and goaltending that sparked Notre Dame to a 10-2 regular season record before the Irish similarly bowed out against the Blue Devils in the quarterfinals after again putting up just five goals.

Both those years, the defense played well enough to win when the Irish were eliminated and it was a lack of offense that ultimately caused Notre Dame’s season to end in defeat.

Earlier this season, it looked like once again the defense would have to carry the team. With the graduation of key offensive contributors in attack Colin Igoe and midfielders Zach Brenneman and David Earl, the Irish needed others to step up. The long-term loss of senior captain and attack Nicholas Beattie to injury in the season opener did nothing to help matters. As a result, the Irish scored just 22 goals through their first four games, including only three in an overtime loss to Penn State.

But since then, the Irish have picked things up on the offensive end, scoring at least eight goals in each of their last five games and reaching double digits three times.

While no one would confuse Notre Dame’s recent offense with that of No. 1 Virginia – the Irish still rank No. 51 in scoring offense in the NCAA out of 61 teams – the Irish are putting more goals on the scoreboard, thanks to the emergence of sophomore midfielder Jim Marlatt and freshman attack Conor Doyle, both in their first year of game action. Veterans such as senior attack Sean Rogers, sophomore attack Westy Hopkins, junior midfielder Ryan Foley and senior captain and midfielder Max Pfeifer have also elevated their play in late March and early April.

Notre Dame’s ultimate fate this season will be determined if the current offensive play can be continued, if not exceeded.

Make no mistake, for Notre Dame to win a national championship, it will take both units to be firing on all cylinders. If senior defenseman and captain Kevin Randall, junior goalie John Kemp and the rest of the Irish defensive unit have an off day during the NCAA tournament, it won’t matter what the offense does.

The defense, however, has shown in the past that it can compete on the biggest of stages and there is no reason to expect anything different this year based on their play so far, as they currently rank No. 1 in the NCAA in scoring defense.

If players such as Rogers, Doyle, Marlatt and Hopkins can produce even more, the Irish could be very dangerous in May. Perhaps more importantly, if secondary scoring from midfielders like senior Eric Keppeler, juniors Pat Cotter and Steve Murphy and freshman Will Corrigan can develop, the Irish may be impossible to beat.

Sunday starts arguably the toughest stretch of the regular season when the Irish travel to Georgetown, then head to Villanova the following week before hosting Syracuse in the regular season finale April 28. While the Hoyas, Wildcats and Orange aren’t among the upper echelon of NCAA lacrosse this season, they are all quality opponents and provide no rest for the next three weeks. It’s an important time for the offense to further mesh as a unit against good competition and hopefully build up confidence heading into the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

Notre Dame lacrosse has reached unprecedented heights in recent years. The Irish finished the 2009 regular season undefeated for the first time in program history. The national championship loss in 2010 marked the first time the Irish ever played in the season’s final game. And the Irish reached No. 1 in the polls for the first time in the middle of last season. The team will even be featured in its own half-hour documentary at 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon on NBC Sports Network.

All that is great, but these Irish are looking for more. They’re looking for the ultimate prize.

The defense has won games. It’s time for the offense to propel Notre Dame to a championship.

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.