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ND Women’s Lacrosse

ND starts season with experience

| Thursday, February 4, 2016

Notre Dame begins its 2016 season in territory that may seem distant from the cold of South Bend but with plenty of familiar faces on the roster as the Irish travel to Atlantic Sun conference member Jacksonville.

Notre Dame returns 11 of 12 starters from the 2015 campaign that saw the Irish finish 11-9, falling to Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA tournament. These returning starters include graduate student, Tewaaraton Award finalist and first-team All-American defender Barbara Sullivan and her fellow first-team All-American, junior attack Cortney Fortunato. Junior midfielders Alex Dalton and Casey Pearsall, second and third-team All-Americans, respectively, are also among the returners for the Irish.

Notre Dame head coach Christine Halfpenny said the continuity between the 2015 and 2016 teams has allowed her squad to improve over the offseason.

“We certainly are seeing the fruits of two, three and four years of continuity, of that labor, paying off,” Halfpenny said. “Every single player come has back this year with elevated skills. All of their skills have improved immensely individually, and now collectively you see their experience coming together as they play together.

“That’s really creating a synergy from top to bottom. I think that that there’s a full connection from our goal all the way down to the offense. I think every aspect of this team is mature, and we’re sure of ourselves. Everyone trusts themselves, and they trust each other, so these two or three years of continuity are really starting to pay off this season.”

Although the Irish will likely field another strong defense, led by Sullivan, who topped the ACC in caused turnovers in 2015, Halfpenny said the Irish offense has come on this offseason and will be a threat in its own right, too.

“I think that recently we’ve been a sort of defensive powerhouse, if you will, we’ve done a nice job of playing this aggressive style, we’ve been working really hard on that, and it’s something we’ve been known for,” Halfpenny said. “When you come in, you know it’s going to be a physical style. But in the offseason, we’ve really focused on our offensive movement, a lot of off-ball cutting as well as our shooting. That was an area that we did identify last year that we wanted to improve upon and our team took it very seriously.

“ … Our offense, it’s a veteran unit, it’s a mature unit. Top to bottom, the skill level is great, and I can’t wait to see them showcase themselves.”

The Irish meet a Jacksonville team that, despite only entering its eighth season of existence, has already managed to win the last three Atlantic Sun conference titles and has posted a record of 74-24 since 2011. The Dolphins finished last season 17-3, losing to Massachusetts in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Halfpenny said she has been impressed by the growth of the Dolphins’ program.

“I have a lot of respect for this Jacksonville program,” Halfpenny said. “ … They’ve been building as well. Just as we’ve been building here over my last five years, Jacksonville has been building, too. They’ve gone to consecutive NCAA tournaments, and they’re a very aggressive team; they’re a scrappy team. They compete hard.”

Halfpenny said the Dolphins could prove to be a serious challenge for her side, pointing to junior attacker Danielle Della Rocca as a particular player her team needs to watch out for.

“I think they have some really nice systems and strategies,” Halfpenny said. “They look like they’ll play a zone defense, and they’ve got some holes to fill. They’ve got a brand new goalie, so we don’t know what to expect there, but they do return some very good players. 

“ … But really, it’s the first game of the season, neither one of us has much on the other, but I know that we can expect one heck of a competition. These guys are going to fight, they’re an NCAA tournament team, they’ve proven it, and they’ve been getting better every single year.”

The Irish will meet the Dolphins at D.B. Milne Field in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday at 4 p.m.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel