April 3, 2016

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By Leigh Torbin

Had the top-five women’s lacrosse matchup between No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 3 North Carolina been one of Notre Dame’s intramural Baraka Bouts, the Fighting Irish would have strode off of Fetzer Field proud of dominating the middle rounds against the defending national runner-up. The Irish held the Tar Heels off the scoreboard for the final 13:13 of the first half and mounted a 6-1 run over the middle 45-percent of the game. Midway through the second half, the Irish had outshot North Carolina 11-2 in the stanza with both Tar Heel shots and goals in that span coming while a man-up.

Unfortunately, like in boxing, the cumulative toll absorbed by the Irish in the opening rounds of the bout came back to haunt the team in the end. After cutting its early 9-1 deficit to just three goals at 10-7, Notre Dame would see North Carolina tally four of the game’s final five markers to pull away with a 14-8 victory.

Notre Dame demonstrated that it could stand toe-to-toe with one of the sport’s measuring stick programs of recent vintage and even pull past its Carolina blue and white-clad foe. A couple early trips to the canvas ultimately proved to be insurmountable over the long-run on Sunday in Chapel Hill. The resilience showed in not allowing an early knockout, however, will only benefit a 10-3 (3-3 ACC) Fighting Irish squad which has not lost this year to a team ranked outside of the national top six.

“We are playing in the best conference in the country at the part of our season where it’s top 10 team after top 10 team and we didn’t come out the way that we needed to come out to assert ourselves as a top team,” Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny said after her team faced a top 10 opponent for the fifth consecutive weekend. “We had to play from behind at that makes it a little bit tougher mentally.

“I’m proud of my team and the way that they fought to make it a three-goal game. We weren’t able to make it any closer than that. We have to assert ourselves and stay consistent to convert some of the possessions.

“I’m confident in this group that they will respond. Their on-field leadership is tremendous and they believe in who we are and where we are going.”

Alex Dalton and Rachel Sexton scored two goals each, leading the Irish on a day where the team did not see an individual record a hat trick for the first time in 2016. Cortney Fortunato had a goal and an assist, the goal (coming on a transitional feed from Barbara Sullivan) being the 200th point of her Irish career. The junior is the sixth Notre Dame player to ever reach this milestone.

Sullivan filled up her stat line as usual, collecting five ground balls (one of which led to the afore-mentioned Fortunato goal) and controlling three draws in addition to a pair of caused turnovers. As for the team’s other three captains, Stephanie Toy caused three turnovers, Stephanie Peragallo got three ground balls and Brie Custis caused two turnovers.

“I can’t say enough about Barbara Sullivan,” Halfpenny said of her three-year team captain. “She’s leading the team the way we’re asking her. Game on game on game she leaves it all out there. Our captains and other players are doing the same thing. We just need to continue to grow and learn how be a top team.”

Buoyed by large first half margins, North Carolina enjoyed a 28-21 edge in shots, a 14-10 draw control margin and a 24-19 ground ball cushion. The battle’s foul count went decidedly against the Irish with Notre Dame out-fouling North Carolina 48-20 and picking up six yellow cards to UNC’s one.

The contest began on even terms with Aly Messinger scoring for North Carolina 1:50 into the game and Sexton matching that effort as she scored unassisted 3:04 into the game to tie the score at 1-1.

Each of the next eight goals would come off of Tar Heels sticks, however. Hendrick completed a hat trick by the 17:27 mark and a decided draw control advantage in particular kept the ball in Notre Dame’s defensive zone. Meanwhile, deft rapid ball movement kept Notre Dame’s trademarked aggressive defensive unit from making its usual impact. The Irish caused 11 turnovers on Sunday, well-above the national average of eight per game, but matching a season-low for the nation’s leader in this category at 15.25 per game.

The Irish snapped the run when Casey Pearsall powered to the net for a free position goal with 6:30 left before halftime. Dalton scored unassisted less than a minute later and the Irish had some momentum going into intermission despite trailing, 9-3.

North Carolina scored while on a man advantage 49 seconds into the final period of play but Notre Dame ripped off each of the next four goals making the score 10-7. Kiera McMullan, Dalton, Toy and Fortunato tallied in this run. After another man-up Tar Heel goal, Fortunato fed Sexton for an Irish strike with 14:06 left in the game, returning the deficit to just three goals at 11-8.

North Carolina had dominated the opening rounds. The Irish had valiantly taken the majority of the middle rounds. The latter “championship” rounds of the bout went to the Tar Heels. After withstanding the Irish blows of the middle rounds, UNC scored the final three goals of the bout to take a 14-8 win.

A championship belt, however, will not be presented until the ACC Championship later this month at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. Another championship belt will go to the victor of the NCAA Championship, Memorial Day weekend in suburban Philadelphia.

No titles were won and lost on a sun-splashed Sunday at Fetzer Field. It remains yet to be seen, but the fighting character and battle-experience that can forge a championship title winner, however, may have taken hold a step deeper into the Fighting Irish on Sunday as the team pulled itself up off of the canvas after falling behind 9-1.


Leigh Torbin, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for the Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team while serving as the football publicity team’s top lieutenant. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.