Outstanding male senior athlete: Matt Kavanagh
Alex Carson | Friday, May 13, 2016
Three-time All-American Matt Kavanagh strives to lead the Irish to first NCAA national title
When Matt Kavanagh walks off the field for the final time later this month — whether it be after a win or a loss — he’ll walk off as one of the best players to wear the Notre Dame uniform. As a freshman, he led the team in goals and assists, with those 32 goals an Irish record for a first-year. When he scored 75 points in the 2014 season, he set a new program record. And when he’s done, he’ll be the second highest-scorer in Notre Dame history.
That’s not a bad haul for the three-time All-American and 2015 Tewaaraton Award finalist.
Kavanagh’s history with, and interest in, lacrosse goes back to his childhood — he was introduced to the sport through a friend’s uncle, who was the coach at Virginia.
“At a young age, I was exposed to the sport and at the time, Virginia was arguably the best team in the country,” Kavanagh said. “They went to a bunch of final fours that I attended as a little kid and then they won a couple national championships, so that definitely motivated me to play the sport at the highest level.”
By the time Kavanagh matriculated to Notre Dame, he was seen as one of the best newcomers in his class — and the Irish used a local connection to lure the Rockville Centre, New York, native to South Bend.
“Through the recruiting process, the assistant coach — Gerry Byrne — actually went to my high school, so he got in contact with my coaches, and then we linked up and talked during my junior season, and then after my junior season ended, I gave them a verbal commitment that I was going to come here,” he said. “It happened pretty fast. Looking back on it, [it’s] probably the best decision that I’ve made.”
Before the 5-foot-8 attack stepped foot on campus, he was competing at a high level — for his country though, not the Irish. Kavanagh was a member of the USA under-19 national team in 2012 and said the experience the summer before his freshman year helped ease his transition.
“It was really cool. The under-19 team was awesome,” Kavanagh said. “We ended up winning the gold medal there. I think a lot of my success early in my career — freshman and sophomore years — I can attribute that to playing in those games over in Finland, playing at such a high level with really great players and playing against great players who all played Division I. It was a little taste of what was to come. … I kinda got to know what the intensity and the speed of the game is like at the next level.”
Once Kavanagh got on campus though, he made a big impact from the start: In Notre Dame’s second and third games of his freshman season, against Penn State and North Carolina, Kavanagh scored game-winning overtime goals en route to his 48-point campaign.
“It was definitely cool to contribute as a freshman,” he said. “You’re still trying to get to know the guys on your team, the guys in your class, and to score two big goals in overtime in the first couple games of my career was definitely cool, and it kind of set the tone for what was about to come. It was really cool playing with guys like Sean Rogers; he was a fifth-year senior, so I got to learn a lot and got a lot of experience from him that I’ve used over the years.”
His sophomore season, 2014, turned out to be his best statistically and while it also turned out to be the team’s best, it could’ve ended a lot earlier than where it did: in the national championship game.
“To be honest, we were kind of having an up-and-down season,” Kavanagh said. “We were the fourth-place team in the ACC tournament, and then we played Maryland in the first round of the ACCs and we kind of needed to win to get into the tournament, and we won that game in the last six seconds. That led us on a nice little run to the championship game, where we fell a little short.”
But without one other pivotal moment, Kavanagh wouldn’t have gotten the record and the Irish wouldn’t have played for a title. In the fourth quarter of their NCAA quarterfinal game against Albany, the Irish trailed by five goals. But a rapid comeback forced overtime, and Kavanagh got the job done there, scoring his third career overtime winner to send the Irish to Championship Weekend. For Kavanagh, that win meant more than advancing in the NCAA tournament.
“My favorite moment was that was that game at Hofstra against Albany in the quarterfinals where we ended up winning in overtime,” Kavanagh said. “ … It was pretty special for me just because of where we played at Hofstra — I live about 10 minutes away, so I had about 30 or 40 family members there that got to enjoy it and celebrate after the game.”
The quarterfinal win bought Notre Dame a couple more outings, and let Kavanagh set the school record in the title game loss.
“I think I took my game to the next level that year, assuming a lot of responsibilities on the offensive end for our team,” he said.
Now, as Kavanagh is set to finish his senior season, his role is different. Instead of being the underclassman making a big contribution, Kavanagh is one of the veteran leaders in the locker room.
“You’re a role model and a leader to the younger guys — you set the tone in practice and weight room and off the field, so there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that,” he said. “Having played for the first few years as an underclassman, I got to spend a lot of time with upperclassmen and see how they handle themselves well. I did a pretty good job of taking what those older guys said and did and expressing it this year as a senior and as a captain.”
In a classic bit of senior advice, Kavanagh noted how his four years at Notre Dame haven’t felt that long at all.
“Looking back as a freshman, you don’t realize how quickly it goes,” Kavanagh said.
When this season concludes, Kavanagh will have a chance to play professional lacrosse — he was selected fifth overall by the Denver Outlaws in this year’s Major League Lacrosse Draft — but he’s not focusing on that with only weeks left at Notre Dame.
“I don’t think it would be fair to myself or my teammates if I looked ahead into what this summer has in store,” Kavanagh said. “We still have a couple weeks left, and we’ve gotta take care of some business.”
That business? Chasing a first national title.
“I think, honestly, that’s the only thing that’s missing from making this the best experience of my life,” Kavanagh said. “We’ve traveled all over the country — we even went to Italy, so we’ve traveled the world — played in NFL stadiums, played at the highest level on the highest stage in the national championship.
“But I think it would be really nice to cap off this season and my career with a championship.”