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Men’s Lacrosse

On to the next: Lacrosse’s Corrigan still focused on improving

| Friday, May 7, 2021

On April 10, my roommate informed me that we were going to the Notre Dame men’s lacrosse game. He had played lacrosse in high school and since our Irish were hosting Duke — the No. 1 team in the country at the time — it was a game we couldn’t miss.

Upon arrival, we found that the stadium was already at capacity, so we stood along the fence with more than a hundred other fans. I knew this was a big game, but does a college lacrosse game normally get this crowded? Little did I know, as we watched Notre Dame dismantle Duke by a final score of 13-8, that I was witnessing history. The win gave Notre Dame men’s lacrosse head coach Kevin Corrigan his 311th win: the most by any coach at a single program in Division I history.

But when we connected over the phone to discuss the achievement about a week later, Corrigan allowed just one question on the topic, barely addressing the subject at all.

“You know what, I’m just happy to beat Duke last week and have this team playing really well right now. That other stuff doesn’t mean anything to our guys,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll think about all that somewhere down the line, but right now, I’m just happy for this group of guys right now that we’re playing so well and we’re able to beat Duke; they’re a number one team.”

As a journalist who has interviewed plenty of coaches, I should have been prepared for this answer. The classic “records don’t mean anything unless you keep winning and we’re focused on the next game” response is a staple for coaches.

But, nonetheless, it caught me a little off guard. I had planned to examine Coach Corrigan’s 311 wins and the biggest moments from his time here at Notre Dame for the majority of our discussion. However, like most great coaches, Corrigan is focused much more on the people, the relationships and what comes next, rather than looking back on what has already been accomplished. This mentality has allowed both him and his program to have the type of sustained success they have seen since Corrigan’s hiring in 1988.

“We don’t waste time talking about that, you know,” he said, again steering the focus of our conversation away from anything related to his major achievement. “We don’t waste time talking about rankings or tournaments or anything else because that’s just a distraction from our job, which is to get better every day.”

But instead of giving up on the story I was hoping to write and heading in a different direction, I decided to reach out to those who would be willing to brag about Coach Corrigan: his own assistant coaches. And boy, did they deliver.

“[Winning 311 games] is an incredible accomplishment that I think is going to be very hard to be topped,” assistant coach Chris Wojcik said of Corrigan. “To be able to have such sustained success over such a long period of time — I think there’s a lot of programs that are successful and have flashes and go up and down — but I think what’s incredibly impressive about Coach Corrigan’s tenure is that sustained, consistent success.”

Wojcik, who was hired as the offensive coordinator in 2019, and fellow assistant coach Ryan Wellner had nothing but good things to say about their boss. Wellner reminded me just how absurd it is for a coach to remain in the same position for over 30 seasons, alluding to the role Corrigan’s love for Notre Dame plays in his success and passion for the sport.

“Those in our profession and certainly in coaching in general understand not just the complexity of [the milestone], but how rare it really is,” Wellner said. “First off, the fact that he’s been here for 33 years at one institution in itself is a rarity in this day, and it’s probably never going to be matched in any sport again. [311 wins] is definitely a milestone, and it speaks to his love of Notre Dame and Notre Dame’s love for him, and what he’s done and the players that he’s had here.”

Wellner, who was also brought onto the staff in 2019 as the team’s defensive coordinator and director of recruiting, previously held coaching positions at six other schools, most recently at Navy. He says that Corrigan’s loyalty – both to the school and his players – is what sets him apart from coaches around the country and what has allowed him to make the most of the extensive resources provided by the University.

“I think the biggest thing that comes to mind is Coach’s loyalty: his loyalty to his players, his loyalty to the University, his devotion to the program,” Wellner explained. “It really is another child for him. He’s built it, maintained it, developed it and, obviously, cultivated it.”

Wellner and Wojcik also cited Corrigan’s holistic approach to both recruiting and the development of his players on and off the field once they get to Notre Dame. While a large portion of his work is dedicated to helping the team reach its full potential, Corrigan also devotes plenty of time to making sure his players are well-rounded young men in terms of academics and service. This not only attracts top-tier lacrosse talent every year, but is also a draw for coaches such as Wojcik.

“One of the reasons I came is that Coach believes in the holistic experience of the growth and development of young men, combined with service to the community, all at the same time as pursuing our goal of being the best team that we can be,” Wojcik said. “It’s really those things — the character piece, the service to the community, and then trying to build and grow a team to be the best that we can be — that have been the most impressive things that have resonated the most with me.”

While both Wojcik and Wellner are fresh faces within the lacrosse staff, Corrigan has been pacing the Irish sideline for over three decades, a feat admired by both assistant coaches. Since Corrigan’s hiring in 1988, a lot has changed in the world of lacrosse and within the Notre Dame lacrosse program itself, including the construction of the Arlotta Family Lacrosse Stadium in 2009. Lacrosse was not recognized as a varsity sport at Notre Dame until 1981, and both the quality of players and attention given to the sport as a whole has increased drastically.

“What has changed [since 1988] is they’re better lacrosse players than they were 33 years ago,” was Corrigan’s tongue-in-cheek response when asked about what has changed during his time in South Bend. “What’s changed in our program is kind of everything. When I first got here, most of the kids — pretty much all of the kids on the team — weren’t recruited to Notre Dame to play lacrosse. They were at Notre Dame or came to Notre Dame and were willing to play lacrosse while they were here. That’s a different mindset than the kid that chose Notre Dame in part because of the lacrosse program.”

I noticed Coach Corrigan’s emphasis on the lacrosse program being part of the choice to come to Notre Dame for his players, another indication of how much he cares about his players off the field as well as on it. Following the move to make lacrosse an official varsity sport in 1981, every senior lacrosse player has graduated. In fact, Notre Dame is the only school that ranks in the top five for lacrosse in highest graduation rate, Division I student-athlete graduation rate and graduation rate for athletes who complete their eligibility, per the Notre Dame men’s lacrosse website. Since 1997, three players have gained CoSIDA Academic All-America honors, and 16 Notre Dame student-athletes have been named Scholar All-Americans by the USILA during this period.

The stress Corrigan places on his team’s commitment to excellence on and off the field over the years has not only morphed the Irish into a national power, but it has brought more and more support from the University itself — something for which he is very grateful.

“The level of commitment from the University, it wasn’t a championship-level commitment in 1988, but over time it has become that,” Corrigan said. “That’s terrific — what a wonderful, lucky thing for me, and what a wonderful thing for our kids: for them to know when they come here there’s nothing of significance that they need and don’t have in order to become the best player they can become, the best person they can become and the best team they can become.”

Under Corrigan, Notre Dame lacrosse has developed into exactly that. His Irish have won 18 regular-season conference championships and four conference tournament championships, most recently in 2018. They have always performed in the big games, winning over 120 games against nationally-ranked competition, with over 50 of these victories coming against opponents ranked in the top ten. Over the last 27 seasons with Corrigan at the helm, Notre Dame has finished the season ranked in the top 20 nationally a whopping 26 times.

Prior to Corrigan’s hiring in 1988, the Irish had never even made an appearance in the postseason. Since that momentous day, not only in Notre Dame lacrosse history but in college lacrosse as a whole, Notre Dame has become a perpetual force in the postseason as well. The Irish have made the NCAA Tournament 24 times since 1990, including 14 in a row prior to the 2020 lacrosse season being cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. This streak is the best in program history, and Notre Dame is one of just two schools in the country to appear in the NCAA Tournament each of the previous 14 seasons, the other being Maryland.

And the Irish haven’t just appeared in the postseason during Corrigan’s tenure — they have dominated. His teams have made runs to the NCAA Championship weekend five times, four of which have come in the last eight seasons. Notre Dame has finished as the national runner-up in 2010 and 2014, and as national semifinalists in 2001, 2012 and 2015. They have also finished as national quarterfinalists eight times since 1995, including in 2019, the most recent completed lacrosse season.

The hype surrounding this team pervades campus in a way that many spring sports can’t, and it was enough to get me, a fan of any and all sports, to attend a collegiate lacrosse game for the first time in my life. The game I did attend — his record-setting win — was a bit of a revenge game for Corrigan and his past Irish teams, as they defeated the top-seeded Blue Devils in dominant fashion. Previously, Duke had bested Notre Dame in the 2010 and 2014 national championship games. The Irish came closest in 2010, dropping a heartbreaker to the Blue Devils by a score of 6-5 in overtime. A national championship is the lone achievement missing from Corrigan’s coaching resume, but as a top-10 team in the country, Notre Dame has the chance to rewrite the history books this season.

“I’m not going to say that this team feels different because we’ve had a bunch of teams that I think have been capable of winning a championship, but it’s tough. We’ve lost a national championship in overtime; you can’t get closer to winning one than that. Being that it’s sudden death, you literally were one play away. That’s as close as you can get,” he said, returning to the coach speak that many of us (former) athletes know all too well. “And we’ve been to the Final Four a number of times and we’ve even had some teams that lost in the quarterfinals that I know were capable of winning championships. But its very hard: You have to be playing well, you have to be healthy, you have to beat four very good teams in three weeks — and all those things need to come together. That said, this is a team that is capable of doing that.”

The majority of our conversation focused on team success, but what Corrigan has been able to do for his individual players is nothing short of remarkable. Long gone are the days of asking already-enrolled Notre Dame students to join the lacrosse team, and Corrigan has been churning out All-Americans at a ridiculous rate. Over the last 28 years, Notre Dame has had at least one All-American every season and they have multiple players earn All-American honors in each of the last 16 years. In total, 48 individuals coached by Corrigan have been awarded 92 All-American honors during his tenure. Additionally, almost 40 of his players have gone on to play professionally in the Premier Lacrosse League, Major League Lacrosse or the National Lacrosse League, and eight have competed in major international competition.

But Coach Corrigan didn’t tell me about a single one of these previous accomplishments. Not one. It took a little bit of digging on the lacrosse website to find his extensive biography, but after our conversation, I was no longer surprised. Instead of leaning on his past successes, it had become quite clear that Corrigan is laser-focused on the relationships he is fostering with his current players and the daily grind they face in pursuit of their lofty goals.

“It’s a chance to be a part of somebody’s life in something that they are passionate about at a really important time in their lives,” he said. “That’s a really cool and very unique thing to be able to do every day for 30 years.”

This personal approach has allowed Corrigan to create a culture of excellence and long-term success unmatched almost anywhere in the country. The impact he has had on Notre Dame athletics and the lacrosse landscape as a whole cannot be overstated. But in spite of the overwhelming greatness of his coaching career thus far, Corrigan cannot be distracted from improving during the next drill, the next practice and the next game.

“I keep trying to get better. I know I’m not the best I can be yet,” he says. “I’m going to keep trying to get better, and I’m going to do the same thing I’m asking our guys to do. If I can keep learning and keep doing this long enough, maybe I can get it right.”

Coach Corrigan has gotten it right 311 times over the course of 33 years here at Notre Dame, but if you ask him, no game is as important as the next one. His Irish show no signs of slowing down, despite struggling slightly down the final stretch of the regular season. Following their historic win over Duke, Notre Dame dropped two straight games to Duke and North Carolina, both of whom are ranked in the top five. However, the Irish finished the season on a high note with a 22-8 demolition of Syracuse behind a record-setting performance from sophomore attacker Pat Kavanagh. Kavanagh’s five goals and five assists gave him 10 points in the contest, a single-game record in Notre Dame program history. He also broke the single season assists record by notching his 34th assist, breaking a record previously held by his older brother Mark. The win propelled Notre Dame back up to the No. 4 ranking in the country at the end of the regular season.

Notre Dame now has four full weeks following their season finale against Syracuse to prepare for the NCAA Tournament, which begins on May 29 in Hartford, Connecticut. This extended practice period will give Corrigan and his team plenty of time to gear up for another run at a national title. Maybe this is the year that Corrigan adds this final missing piece to his already Hall-of-Fame-worthy legacy.

When asked about this legacy and the impact he hopes to leave here at Notre Dame, Coach Corrigan responded with a laugh, saying that he hopes “he didn’t screw it up.” 33 seasons and 311 wins later, nothing could be further from the truth.

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