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ND Women’s Lacrosse

Hoonhout: Notre Dame postseason fate will depend on senior class

| Wednesday, April 26, 2017

After opening the season with a tough 14-13 loss to then-No. 9 Northwestern, the Irish rebounded with the third-longest winning streak in program history, as the team won eight straight, including road battles over ACC foes Duke and Louisville.

Irish senior attack Cortney Fortunato watches a shot during Notre Dame's 24-9 win over Detroit at Loftus Sports Center on Feb. 11.Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer

Irish senior attack Cortney Fortunato watches a shot during Notre Dame’s 24-9 win over Detroit at Loftus Sports Center on Feb. 11.

While the team has been led all year by senior attack and pre-season All-American Cortney Fortunato and do-it-all senior midfielder Casey Pearsall, who paces the team in assists and draw controls, Notre Dame started the season with some youth in the starting lineup. As the Irish jumped out to an 8-1 start, the team had as many as six underclassmen in the starting lineup, and for over half of the regular season, things were looking great.

But starting over spring break, Notre Dame went on a four-game road trip after playing six of its first nine games at home. The Irish also had to face tough weather conditions at then-No. 9 Princeton and then-No. 15 Towson, and although the team battled, they came up short in both games to suddenly turn an eight-game win streak into a two-game skid.

Notre Dame then faced traditional powerhouse Virginia, although the Cavaliers had been struggling and were winless in the ACC. But the Irish, who had the exact same starting lineup as when the team beat Ohio State on March 7 to push the wins to eight in a row, were convincingly beaten.

In the 15-5 loss, Notre Dame had fewer shots, ground balls, draw controls and clears than Virginia, not to mention more turnovers. It was the worst offensive performance for the Irish this season, and coming up against then-No. 4 Syracuse in the final game of the trip, the Irish had to make a change to reverse this dramatic turnaround.

So head coach Christine Halfpenny went back to the drawing board and came out the following weekend with a different lineup. The Irish played four attack and four midfielders against the Orange, breaking from the three attack-five midfielder formation that the team had been running with all season. But perhaps even more importantly, Halfpenny turned to her senior class to lead the way.

Sophomore attack Nikki Ortega and injured sophomore midfielder Makenna Pearsall were dropped in favor of seniors Heidi Annaheim and Emma Claire Fontenot, who both had their first start of the season against the Orange. And it worked. The Irish bounced back in a huge way, winning 16-7 and handing Syracuse its first conference loss. The now senior-heavy starting lineup stepped up in practically every statistical category with 10 goals, three assists, 11 ground balls, 12 caused turnovers and nine draw controls, and Notre Dame saved its season.

As the Irish head to the ACC tournament this week as the No. 4 seed in the best conference in the country, Halfpenny’s decision to change her tactics and trust her seniors has paid huge dividends. Since the defeat of Syracuse on March 26, Notre Dame has gone 2-2 in its final four games, including three against ranked ACC opponents, and have looked competitive in every game. And for Halfpenny, there is an emotional connection with this group as well. It was her first recruiting class when she took the job in 2011, and it has been with her every step of her Notre Dame career, including the team’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament under Halfpenny in 2013, the program’s first season in the ACC in 2014 and Notre Dame’s first NCAA win under Halfpenny in the first round of the 2014 NCAA tournament.

And as this team prepares for the postseason, it simply makes sense that the class of 2017 leads the way for the Irish. They’ve been with Halfpenny since the beginning, and how fitting would it be if they brought home the program’s first championship in the end?

There’s only one way to find out.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby is a sophomore PLS/Economics double major who lives in Smithtown, New York. He grew up, however, just outside of D.C., thus ushering in over a decade of sadness being a Washington sports fan. Among his loves are House of Cards, pizza, and Tottenham Hotspur FC, and he is more than happy to talk about all of them.

Contact Tobias