Peters: We’re witnessing a golden age of Notre Dame athletics
Ryan Peters | Tuesday, May 30, 2023
As one of the traditional football powers, Notre Dame athletics face a high level of scrutiny. Thus, given some academic, geographic and institutional restraints, fans find a lot to complain about when it comes to recruiting and other competitive disadvantages relative to the massive state school powerhouses.
But when you think about what Notre Dame does accomplish in athletics, its success doesn’t make sense. A school of under 9,000 undergraduate students in South Bend, Indiana, ranks among the best in a lot of sports.
And appreciate the success of Irish sports now because we’re living in a golden age of Irish athletics. For reference, we rising seniors have not seen a team other than Notre Dame win a fencing championship since we enrolled.
Here’s a quick warning: this will not be the most objective column ever. There are a lot of NCAA sports and a lot of schools. If you think you know of a time where Notre Dame athletics were as dominant across the board as they are now, email me. My email is below and I’d love to hear about it.
With its national championship Monday, Notre Dame men’s lacrosse became just the second team from outside the east coast to ever win an NCAA title since the first tournament was held in 1971 — the only other champion west of the eastern seaboard was Denver University in 2015. And the 2023 team was no fluke. That was the men’s lacrosse team’s third title game appearance and sixth Final Four appearance since 2010.
The other recent example of the extraordinary level of Notre Dame’s current athletic prowess is the baseball team’s run to the College World Series in 2022. College baseball is dominated by teams from the Sun Belt and West Coast. It’s a warm-weather sport. The other teams in the CWS last year? Ole Miss, Arkansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Auburn, Oklahoma and Stanford. Notre Dame is not like the others. In 2021 and 2022, we saw Notre Dame baseball’s only two Super Regional appearances since its last CWS trip in 2002 and just its third-ever CWS appearance.
The same goes for softball — it’s a warm-weather sport. What has Notre Dame softball accomplished in the past few years? Extended its streak to 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
In the late fall of 2021, while many may have been distracted by former head football coach Brian Kelly’s decision to leave Notre Dame, the Irish men’s soccer team qualified for its second College Cup in program history with a dramatic win on penalty kicks in the NCAA Quarterfinals at Alumni Stadium.
As for the women’s squad, its track record in the past decade doesn’t quite match up to its storied history. But producing one of the best players in program history in Korbin Albert and winning five NCAA Tournament games in two years is not exactly something to scoff at.
Another traditional Irish powerhouse, the women’s basketball team, faced an expected adjustment period after legendary head coach Muffet McGraw stepped down in 2020. In just three years, head coach Niele Ivey has already led the Irish to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. A glut of injuries put a damper on the end of the 2022-23 season. But a stacked incoming recruiting class headlined by point guard Hannah Hidalgo and returning star power has the immediate future looking bright for the Irish.
The men’s squad has struggled in recent years. But they put together one last NCAA Tournament run before head coach Mike Brey stepped down a year later. The Irish’s dramatic 2022 First Four victory over Rutgers in double overtime was the most exciting college basketball game since 2016 — and by a lot, according to FiveThirtyEight. The Irish went on to beat Alabama before bowing out against Texas Tech. With its two tournament victories in 2022, we saw 13% of Notre Dame’s wins in the men’s basketball tournament in the past 30 years. Not bad.
Speaking of excitement, Notre Dame’s bonkers 45-38 victory over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl in December capped a tumultuous but promising start to the Marcus Freeman era. Freeman looks poised to carry the momentum that Kelly started when he resurrected the program after the disappointing tenures of former coaches Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis. Since coming to school, my grade has stormed the field twice against Clemson and witnessed ACC Title and College Football Playoff appearances.
Notre Dame hockey remains a top program in the country, narrowly missing out on a Frozen Four berth in 2022. Irish Track & Field — aka “Steeplechase U” — is sending nine athletes to the NCAA Championships in just over a week, including two steeplechasers. Former runner Yared Nuguse qualified for the 1500m at the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics. During the cross country season in the fall, Carter Solomon became just the second Irish runner to win an ACC individual title. Both the men and women finished in the top 15 in the NCAA Championships. The women notched a 7th-place finish.
Senior golfer Palmer Jackson became the first Notre Dame athlete to ever make his or her pro debut while still attending the University. Jackson made his PGA Tour debut in October at the Butterfield Bermuda Championship. He also set the school record for single-season scoring average in 2021-22. That helped lead the men’s team to their best-ever finish at the ACC Championship.
Women’s lacrosse finished ranked eighth this year, after falling in the NCAA Quarterfinals to the eventual runner-up Boston College. Finally, men’s swimming and diving posted its best finish in school history when it came in 18th place at the NCAA Men’s Championships in March.
That was a lot. Nearly every single sport at Notre Dame is either performing at a high level or has individual athletes performing at extraordinary levels. And again, this just does not make much sense. The only small, private schools with comparably strong athletic programs across the board are Stanford, Northwestern, TCU and Vanderbilt.
I love South Bend — trust me — but, admittedly, selling it to prospective recruits can be a bit difficult. These other private schools boast warm climates or access to Silicon Valley, Chicago or Nashville. Meanwhile, South Bend can boast access to… the RV capital of the world?
If you’re looking for objectivity, Notre Dame won the 2021-22 men’s Capital One Cup, a scoring system measuring success across all NCAA sports. The average undergraduate enrollment of the other schools in the top 10? Over 24,000 students — almost triple the size of Notre Dame’s undergraduate student body.
What Notre Dame student-athletes accomplish on just about every single playing surface is remarkable. Current students — appreciate what we are witnessing. Take it in. There are not many, if any, Notre Dame graduating classes that have seen as many incredible athletic moments as we have in each season.
Here’s to not jinxing the future.
Light up Grace Hall.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.