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Men’s Lacrosse: Stout backline thrives on symbiotic relationship

Matthew Robison | Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Irish play on an artificial surface in Arlotta Stadium, but Irish coach Kevin Corrigan speaks about his team in natural terms. Corrigan describes the dynamic between his All-American senior goaltender John Kemp and the rest of the defensive unit as a “symbiotic relationship.”

“We have a good goalie so we can do certain things,” Corrigan said. “We have a good goalie because we do certain things. We try to put our goalies in a situation where they can be comfortable and know what they’re going to get on a consistent basis.”

As a preseason All-American pick, Kemp enters the season as the premier man between the pipes on the national scene. Last year, he led the nation in goals-against average at just over six per game.

But the credit does not go entirely to the shot-stopper. Kemp is surrounded by a culture of defensive dominance, something Corrigan and the Notre Dame staff has carefully cultivated.

“It starts with that’s how we choose to build our teams,” Corrigan said. “There’s a commitment throughout our team to be a good defense. That affects the way you play offense, it affects the way you ride and clear. It affects the commitment with the personnel you have and who’s going to play and so forth.”

Assistant coach Gerry Byrne, who is in his seventh season as the team’s defensive guru, echoed Corrigan’s sentiments about the two-way dynamic between Kemp and the rest of the defense.

“You have to have confidence on a dual-directional level,” Byrne said. “You have to have confidence that John’s going to stop shots at a high percentage. There’s a confidence that John is great on certain kinds of shots. Like most goalies he struggles on some others. But we try to minimize shots he doesn’t like. Conversely, he has confidence that our guys aren’t going to do things out of character.”

This season, three veterans will flank Kemp: senior Matt Miller and juniors Stephen O’Hara and Brian Buglione. Junior Mike Shephardson and senior long stick midfielder Tyler Andersen will offer their services on a consistent basis as well.

Miller gave Kemp some high praise. But he said he recognizes the defensive system plays right into a goaltender’s hands – or stick.

“Kemp would be the best goalie in the nation even if he didn’t play on our defense,” Miller said. “But I guess, we really kind of crowd the crease, I guess you could say. We always have good middies who guide them down the alley, having the slide ready, the backside push. Everyone knowing their role just helps to force the 12-yard shots down the alley that are pretty easy for Kemp to gobble up.”

It might be easy to consider the goaltender the last line of defense in a sport like lacrosse. If all else fails, he’s there to take a stab at the incoming shot. But in many ways, everything starts with the goaltender as well. He’s the axis around which the defense rotates.

“Technically, you can say I’m the last line of defense,” Kemp said. “But I think the philosophy that we have as a defense is that I’m part of it. The role that the goalie plays in lacrosse is much bigger – obviously the first job is to stop the ball, but I think it’s a lot bigger than that – communication of the slide packages, where the ball is, running out the shot. There’s just a lot that goes into it.”

Although the attackmen are never allowed to cross the midfield line, their play works into Notre Dame’s defensive philosophy as well. Midfielders play the full length of the field, so their performance is important on both sides of the ball. 

The attack need to avoid taking poor shots to keep the opponent out of a transition game. The midfielders need to ride the opponent as they clear.

“If any of those pieces aren’t in place then you aren’t a good defensive team,” Corrigan said. “We know we don’t need to score 15 to win a game. But at the same time they’ve got a responsibility to making that be true. That’s something they do pretty effectively. I think they’re part of us being a good defensive team, rather than passive beneficiaries of us being a good defensive team.”

There are millions of examples of symbiotic relationships in nature, and Notre Dame has an example in its own backyard – it’s on the turf in Arlotta Stadium.

Contact Matthew Robison at mrobison@nd.edu