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ND Women’s Lacrosse

Notre Dame looks to build on 2016 season

| Thursday, January 26, 2017

A year ago, Notre Dame began the 2016 season returning 11 of 12 starters, including Tewaaraton Award finalist defender Barbara Sullivan. This year, they lack the same level of starting experience, but the Irish, now led by senior attack and All-American Cortney Fortunato, will hope to build upon last season’s NCAA quarterfinal appearance.

Losing key contributors from 2016’s team — including attack Rachel Sexton, midfielder Stephanie Toy and the three-time first-team All-American Sullivan — the Irish will need to see continued improvements from its experienced players like Fortunato as well as from those who are stepping into starting roles for the first time this year. Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny, however, said she feels that the chance to give new players playing time is more of an opportunity than a problem.

Irish senior midfielder Casey Pearsall looks to pass during Notre Dame’s 5-4 loss to USC on April 18.Kathleen Donahue | The Observer

Irish senior midfielder Casey Pearsall looks to pass during Notre Dame’s 5-4 loss to USC on April 18.

“I feel like it’s a really exciting time,” Halfpenny said. “We have some players who have hd the opportunity to develop before seeing playing time and we’re going to see some new faces but not too much of a change in regard to our motion offense, the speed of our off-ball movement, the speed of the ball movement. We’re returning three major contributors from the last three seasons in Cortney Fortunato, [senior attack] Heidi Annaheim and [senior attack] Grace Muller, we’re really excited about our senior campaign kicking off right there with them.

“[Attack] Nikki Ortega is coming off of a great freshman year campaign, we’re really excited to see what she can do. She also had a very strong sophomore fall which was great; she was a contributor and saw a lot of minutes in a number of games and now we’re seeing her get a little bit more opportunities here due to graduation. It’s great to see that coming together. Welcoming [junior attack] Abi Cullinan back to the field after a knee injury at the end of her freshman year will be great, she has incredible 1v1 prowess. So while it may look like we’ve lost a lot and we’re starting from scratch, we’re certainly not.”

Fortunato, who finished seventh in the nation in goals last year while also leading the team in assists, is expected to be not only the leading attacker for the Irish again in 2017, but also among the best players in the country, featuring on the U.S. training team for the 2017 World Cup and being named as a preseason Tewaaraton candidate by Inside Lacrosse. Halfpenny said she believes Fortunato has added an improved patience and shot selection to her game that should see her move to the next level.

“I think that Cortney’s been focused on continuing to improve our team and help push up to the next level since she’s been a freshman,” Halfpenny said. “She’s been one of our determined, strong, confident leaders with an incredible skillset. Seeing everything she’s done, you wonder what else she can do, and I’ve really seen her focus on her patience and finding the right shot. That’s been a really big thing for her. Watching her movement patterns, she’s continuing to grow in her off-ball movement, which has been really exciting. Her time with the U.S. team was all so positive. She learned a lot, she got to play with the best in the world and was able to bring back some of that to her game, but really raise those around her’s game as well, and that’s really a sign of someone who wants to be the best.”

With many of the top teams in the nation playing in the ACC, and Notre Dame meeting many other strong opponents in out-of-conference matchups, the Irish face yet another daunting schedule, including nine teams who made the 2016 NCAA tournament. That schedule includes a run through March and April of four road games against tournament teams, ending with NCAA semifinalist Syracuse, before a home game against defending national champions North Carolina. Halfpenny said she enjoyed the chance her team gets to prove itself against the nation’s best.

“We get opportunities on opportunities,” Halfpenny said. “That’s the wonderful thing about playing in the strongest conference in the country. I feel like every week we get a great opportunity to play a quality opponent and when you play the best they’re going to expose some areas you need to improve on, but you’re also going to have the opportunity to showcase areas that you’re strong in. That’s going to be a great strength of playing in the ACC. We learn more about ourselves, we’re kind of pushing the limit and raising the ceiling of how great we can be and you attribute that to great opponents.

“We’ve got great student-athletes. It really is the best of the best here at Notre Dame, and when you’re consistently battle-tested, it’s going to make you stronger, smarter, more powerful and more confident in your game. So we attribute that to the strong schedule we get to play both in and out of conference.”

The Irish will begin their season Feb. 5, when they host Northwestern at Loftus Sports Center. Opening draw is at 1 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