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Carson: Irish have tools to win a title, need to capitalize on their depth

| Wednesday, April 6, 2016

At this point, I think we know what No. 7 Notre Dame is.

The Irish (10-3, 3-3 ACC) have lost to No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 Syracuse and No. 5 Louisville. They’ve beaten No. 10 Stanford, No. 11 Princeton, No. 15 Virginia and No. 17 Boston College.

To this point, Notre Dame has been nothing if not consistent. Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny’s squad is probably where most expected it to be at the start of the season — really good, but still not quite in the national title discussion.

The question: In the next month, can the Irish take that next step, the one that makes the goal of a national title feasible, more than just an aim to get to the final weekend?

In its losses to Louisville and Syracuse, Notre Dame was right in it — the defeat at Louisville came in double overtime, while the Orange used a late 3-0 run to their advantage in a 12-11 win at Arlotta Stadium.

Sunday’s defeat at North Carolina was a little different, though. The Tar Heels controlled the majority of the game, and Notre Dame really only looked like a potential threat to win after it closed a 9-1 deficit to 11-8 with 14:06 to play.

The loss left the Irish firmly on the outside looking in when it comes to the ACC regular season title picture, but how the team responds from its first significant defeat of the year, a 14-8 loss, will tell a lot. Against the Cardinals and Orange, the Irish could fall back on “being close.”

They couldn’t do that Sunday.

And that’s where Notre Dame’s veteran leadership should prove beneficial moving forward. A good year was expected from this team because all the key players were back; the attacks leading the squad in goals, junior Cortney Fortunato (39) and senior Rachel Sexton (34) have been here and done that, as has one of the best defenders in the country, graduate student Barbara Sullivan.

But if the Irish are going to find another gear down the stretch, it might not be the big-name players that lead that push. This Notre Dame squad is deep, too — five other players sit with 25 or more points this year: junior midfielder Casey Pearsall, freshman attack Nikki Ortega, senior attack Kiera McMullan, junior attack Grace Muller and junior attack Heidi Annaheim.

Irish freshman attack Nikki Ortega takes on a defender during Notre Dame's 16-4 win over Virginia on March 19 at Arlotta Stadium.Grace Tourville | The Observer
Irish freshman attack Nikki Ortega takes on a defender during Notre Dame’s 16-4 win over Virginia on March 19 at Arlotta Stadium.

That’s where this push needs to come from if Notre Dame’s going to find that next gear. Fortunato and Sexton are already two of the best scorers in the country — if one or two of their teammates can start consistently finding the back of the net a few times each game, there’s no limit to how deep this squad can go in the NCAA tournament.

Luckily for Halfpenny, her team’s going to have a couple more opportunities to prove itself the rest of the way: All four regular season contests left on the docket for Notre Dame are against ranked opposition — highlighted by No. 6 USC’s visit April 18 — and it’s highly unlikely the Irish would see an unranked foe in the ACC tournament. Though it isn’t a league game, that visit from the Trojans is perhaps the most pivotal game on the schedule; if you’re going to assert yourself as a contender, it’s the type of contest you’ve got to win. A victory over the Trojans would show a lot for the Irish, not to mention the seeding boost in the NCAA tournament that could come with it.

At the end of the day, as we sit here in early April, we’ve figured out pretty well what Notre Dame is. The Irish are one of the nation’s strongest team, but right now, they’re just a cut below teams like North Carolina or No. 1 Maryland.

What can they be in a month or two?

In my eyes, there’s no reason we can’t be sitting here on Memorial Day weekend talking about an Irish squad that’s playing for a national championship in Chester, Pennsylvania. But they still have one more step forward to take before we should entertain that too seriously.

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

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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