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Women’s Lacrosse: Irish fall short against Cats

Jack Hefferon | Thursday, April 25, 2013

Thomas Edison famously said he never failed when inventing the light bulb but instead found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.

For Irish coach Christine Halfpenny and her No. 10 Notre Dame squad, their quest to beat No. 4 Northwestern may have a similar feel to it. After losing by 10 and five goals to the Wildcats in two meetings last season, the Irish (11-4, 5-3 Big East) came closer than ever to their light bulb moment Wednesday, falling just short in a 10-8 showdown under the lights at Arlotta Stadium.

The loss marked the 14th-straight win in the series for the Wildcats (14-2, 4-1 American Lacrosse Conference), who have established themselves as the sport’s premier team by winning seven of the last eight national championships. 

But Notre Dame’s second-half fight, combined with its closest-ever margin of defeat, allowed Halfpenny to draw several positives from Wednesday’s game.

“When someone’s on top, that’s what you measure yourself against,” she said. “We’re certainly measuring ourselves against Northwestern. If we’re able to be in a two-goal game with a team like Northwestern, we feel like we’re making progress. … It shows improvement, and we’re excited about that.”

The Irish were able to jump out to an early 3-2 lead, thanks to a dominant first-half display in a surprising area: draw controls. 

Northwestern junior midfielder Alyssa Leonard came into Wednesday’s game with 96 draw controls, putting her on pace to break the NCAA single-season record of 126 draw controls. 

However, it was the Irish who took control early, as they won seven of 10 draws in the opening half.

Halfpenny said her team’s hard work in the face-off circle, combined with its increased discipline on defense, allowed the Irish to dominate possession early.

“I’m so impressed with my team’s ability to beat one of the best draw control teams in the country,” she said. “We were also able to limit our fouls, … which is great moving forward for both our next game and the postseason.”

The Wildcats roared back in a hurry, though, controlling play on both sides of halftime to put together a 7-1 run and take a 9-4 lead with 22 minutes to play. After a slow offensive start, Northwestern began to convert on its chances and put its first four shots on goal past Irish senior goalkeeper Ellie Hilling, which Notre Dame was unable to counter on the other end of the field.

“The area that has shown our youth this season has been our offense,” Halfpenny said. “We’re typically playing with five or six freshmen and sophomores out there at a time. The reason Northwestern got to go home with the win tonight was that their shooting percentage was better than ours.”

With their backs against the wall, though, the Irish dug deep and rallied against the powerhouse Wildcats. Down four with just under 12 minutes to play, the Irish cut that deficit to two in a matter of eight seconds. Sophomore midfielder Caitlin Gargan pulled a gorgeous swim move to split two defenders and score. 

Sophomore defender Barbara Sullivan then quickly corralled the next draw and sparked a fast break that ended with junior attacker Lauren Sullivan, who deposited her fourth goal of the game to bring the Irish right back in it at 10-8.

Notre Dame never got any closer, though, as the team struggled to put a full possession together in the clutch. When the Irish pried the ball from Northwestern, the Wildcats were able to apply enough pressure to get the ball right back. Halfpenny said limiting turnovers would be a key for her team moving forward.

“[Turnovers] have been a theme for us all year,” she said. “We still had too many unforced errors, but that’s still a little bit of a product of our freshmen maturing and being able to handle pressure and learning where their teammates are on the field, so that we don’t give our opponents extra possessions.”

The Irish still have one regular season game to play, as they host Marquette this weekend, but after losing on the road to No. 5 Syracuse and then-No. 19 Connecticut last weekend, the team has completed its Big East schedule.

The recent losses leave the Irish on the outside looking in for the upcoming conference tournament, as they need No. 6 Georgetown to lose twice this weekend in order to make the four-team field.

Regardless of how the chips fall in the conference, Notre Dame still appears to be a strong candidate to make the 26-team NCAA tournament field, an opportunity that will allow Irish players to pursue their ultimate goal, Halfpenny said.

“Myself and my players – we came here to Notre Dame to win championships,” she said. “We say everything happens for a reason. We learn from our losses, and we’re going to prepare for the postseason with a great amount of pride that we have such a great résumé at this point. … We’ve shown the country and the NCAA committee that we belong in that final 26-team tournament. We’ll see what happens this weekend, and take it from there.”

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu