Irish look to earn first national championship
Greg Hadley | Monday, May 26, 2014
BALTIMORE — Second chances.
No. 6 seed Notre Dame has had plenty of them in its late-season run to the Final Four. On Monday, the Irish (12-5, 2-3 ACC) will have one more when they face top-seeded Duke for the national championship at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Not only have the Blue Devils (16-3, 4-1) defeated the Irish this season, a 15-7 rout in early April, they also spoiled Notre Dame’s only previous appearance in the national championship, scoring five seconds into overtime in the 2010 title game to claim a 6-5 victory and their first national title.
Yet, Monday’s championship is not about avenging defeats from years past, Irish coach Kevin Corrigan said.
“This is the 2014 team’s only chance to win a national championship, and I’m not focused on anything else, and I don’t even care to be focused on anything else,” Corrigan said. “It’s great for these guys. It’s great for the 49 kids in that locker room, and I’m not going to take my eye off the ball. … Our deal is to try to finish this on Monday, and that’s all about those 49 guys.”
Even if revenge is not on their mind, the Irish will still have to improve from their first outing against Duke this season in order to win. The loss, which came at home, dropped Notre Dame to 4-4 on the season. The Blue Devils, who are the defending national champions, never trailed and scored seven unanswered goals in one stretch.
Rebounding from tough losses is nothing new for the Irish. After close losses to Maryland and Syracuse in the regular season, Notre Dame recovered to defeat both squads in the ACC tournament and claim the conference crown. When the Irish faced Maryland for a third time this season in the NCAA semifinals Saturday, they stormed to an early lead, cruised to an 11-6 victory and advanced to the second national championship game in program history.
“I just think we’re a better team now than we were a few months or weeks ago, so I think the ability for us to grow and get better each day and lead us to this point is going to be the difference,” Irish senior defenseman and captain Stephen O’Hara said.
The Irish defense, which struggled earlier in the season, has looked more like the top-ranked units of years past during Notre Dame’s postseason run. After allowing 9.83 goals per game during the regular season, the squad has surrendered 8.6 scores during the ACC and NCAA tournaments, including three games of six goals or less. The change has not gone unnoticed, Duke coach John Danowski said.
“Defensively, they seem to be a little more aggressive, checking, and they seem to be a little more active with their sticks,” Danowski said. “They want to get the ball to the ground. They want to be able to push and play in transition.”
The defensive unit has been helped by Notre Dame’s use of the 10-man ride, in which the Irish goalkeeper comes out of the crease to defend an attackman, freeing an Irish attackman to pressure the opposing goalie as the team tries to clear the ball into the offensive zone. When Notre Dame trailed Albany in the NCAA quarterfinals, the Irish switched to a 10-man ride and forced eight turnovers in the final quarter of play when they scored six goals to force overtime in an eventual 14-13 win.
“When guys like [junior attackman] Conor Doyle and [senior attackman John] Scioscia and [sophomore attackman Matt Kavanagh] are riding their defensemen [and] their goalie, it makes my job a lot easier when they eventually do get it over the midfield line,” O’Hara said.
Against Duke, which boasts the second-ranked offense in the country and one of the nation’s leading scorers in senior attackman Jordan Wolf, the Irish will try to limit the Blue Devils’ chances early in their offensive sets, Corrigan said.
“They’re so effective when they come down the field,” Corrigan said of the Blue Devils. “As the midfielders cycle onto the field, they love to attack in that early offense, when it’s maybe five-on-five and some subbing going on, and you have to defend that, which is a real challenge with players as talented as they have.”
Duke enters the national championship, where it will try to become just the sixth team in NCAA history to win consecutive titles, having won 12 of its last 13 games, including a 15-12 victory over fifth-seeded Denver in the semifinals Saturday.
Against the Pioneers, the Blue Devils traded scores for the first quarter and the beginning of the second, before breaking out with seven minutes left in the half, scoring four unanswered goals to take an 8-4 lead into the break. Denver, however, rallied in the third period, forcing Duke to switch goalkeepers early in the fourth quarter.
Junior Kyle Turri, who took over for sophomore Luke Aaron, made four saves, while allowing two goals and picked up the win, raising the possibility that he might earn the start in Monday’s title match. However, Danowski said that Aaron would remain the starter even after surrendering 10 goals to the Pioneers.
“Luke is the starter; he’ll start tomorrow,” Danowski said. “You know, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it or something like that, and we’re going to stay with that. … Even if Kyle was in the goal, I don’t think it would have made a difference.”
In contrast, Notre Dame has benefitted down the stretch from the strong play of junior goalkeeper Conor Kelly, who has recovered from a midseason benching to make 37 saves in the NCAA tournament, compared to 24 goals allowed.
“We’ve seen Conor have some ups and downs this year, but there’s a reason why he’s back in the goal for us right now,” Corrigan said. “He was earning that on a daily basis.”
Notre Dame and defending champion Duke square off Monday with the national title on the line at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Opening faceoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.