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Men’s Lacrosse: Facing the enemy

Sam Gans | Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The goaltender is often considered the key position on a lacrosse team. Attackmen are frequently the recognized stars. But it is the face-off specialist who plays one of the most important, yet anonymous, roles on the squad.

For Notre Dame, that position is filled primarily by sophomore midfielder Liam O’Connor.

O’Connor is now in his second season as the top face-off man for the No. 5 Irish (9-1, 4-0 Big East). The frequency of face-offs in lacrosse, which occur at the start of each quarter and after every goal, makes it a premium to find a player who can win extra possessions for his team.

O’Connor, who arrived at Notre Dame as the 10th best midfielder in the nation in his class according to Inside Lacrosse, added face-offs to his skill-set as a sophomore in high school, and has since developed his ability at the collegiate level.

“I always liked taking face-offs,” O’Connor said. “My older brother Mike took them when he was in high school, and I never really started to really work on them until sophomore year of high school when I had my high school coach learn a bunch of stuff and he taught it to me. And ever since then, I got a spot on varsity lacrosse and started playing really well and just loved facing off.”

O’Connor’s season got off to a rough start when he was knocked out of the season opener against Duke after receiving a hit to the head, which also caused him to miss Notre Dame’s only loss of the season against Penn State.

On April 1, the injury bug bit again when O’Connor suffered a sprained ankle against St. John’s, forcing him out of the following week’s win over Providence. He said he is now recovered from both injuries.

In addition to the bothersome injuries, O’Connor is also facing a decrease in statistical output from a year ago. After finishing in the top-20 in the nation in face-off percentage last season at .553, O’Connor is currently outside the top-50 in the country at .432 this year. But the lower production has not had an effect on his mindset.

“It’s kind of a team philosophy not to worry about individual statistics,” he said. “I have noticed it, but it hasn’t discouraged me at all. I try to see in other aspects that I’m helping the team … So I just try to make sure that every face-off is at least a 50-50 groundball, and try to contribute as much as I can within my ability.”

That ability has not just been taking face-offs, but scoring goals this year, as well. After recording no points last season, O’Connor scored a critical goal off a face-off win with just over two minutes left in an 8-7 victory at Ohio State on March 21. He also added tallies against Rutgers and St. John’s.

“In high school, I scored a lot, but it’s definitely a good feeling to have that recognized [from] a team standpoint … kind of contributing [with] a big goal against Ohio State – a big momentum swing – or a big goal against St. John’s to keep a run going,” he said.

While he has scored three goals off face-off wins this year, O’Connor is still utilized solely in face-off situations, and not in the settled offense. Though he is hopeful he can eventually evolve from a face-off specialist to an all-around offensive or defensive contributor for the Irish in upcoming seasons, he is currently focused on doing whatever possible to help his team win the ultimate prize in May.

“I think that we could definitely win the national championship,” O’Connor said. “When we’re focused all week preparing to play a game, and we prepare ourselves to go up against the competition, we’re as good as anybody in the country.

“Where we get down is maybe after the first quarter. Against Rutgers, [we] got up to a 6-1 lead and then let up on the pedal a bit. We lose our focus, and that’s where we kind of let other teams get back into the game. But if we stay focused 100 percent during the game, then we can compete with anybody.”

Notre Dame’s next matchup is at Villanova on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.