April 16, 2016
NOTRE DAME, Ind. –
By Leigh Torbin
With all of the pieces in place – a glorious sunny day in the mid-70s at home on Arlotta Stadium, a perennial lacrosse power in Duke, and Senior Day festivities – senior Rachel Sexton helped ensure that the Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team rose to the occasion and created a lasting memory for her class.
Trailing the Blue Devils 6-3 at halftime and 9-7 with 2:15 left to play, the Irish rallied to a 10-9 overtime win ensured when Sexton completed a hat trick 1:55 into the extra session.
“It feels incredible,” Sexton said of her 111th career goal, leaving her ninth in school history. “We’ve been searching to click (like this) and we’ve been searching for a win over these last couple of weeks. For it to all come together on Senior Day was something special to be a part of.”
Notre Dame erased four separate deficits in the game (1-0, 2-1, 6-2 and 9-7) and led the contest for a total of just 47 seconds, but stood on top when the final whistle blew.
The day also represented a milestone for the woman who has helped created the winning culture that helped guide the Irish through the murky waters of Saturday’s back-and-forth game. An assistant coach at Duke from 2004-06, Christine Halfpenny claimed the 100th victory of her head coaching career on Saturday.
“The neatest thing is that you beat a great program,” Halfpenny said. “I have so much respect for (Duke head coach) Kerstin Kimel and everything she has done to build that program. I was honored to spend three seasons on the sidelines there when they were doing what we are doing right now which is becoming a national household name in the top five competing to go to the final four. To see our girls rise to the challenge and compete against a dominant and traditional powerhouse, against my mentor and one of my best friends, makes it a little bit sweeter.”
A young team over the past few seasons, Notre Dame’s now-veteran leadership shone through on offense. All 10 goals today were scored by seniors or juniors who would not let the Irish give away the contest after repeatedly falling behind.
“They did what they have repeatedly done throughout their careers which is to respond,” Halfpenny said of her upperclassmen. “I appreciated their focus. They took extreme ownership over the team, especially out of halftime. They came out for the second half very focused and very driven. We really played together and that was a big difference in the second half. You saw them looking for each other. I’m excited for this whole squad. It speaks to what this senior class has done for this team, to see how hard everybody – regardless of class – played today.”
With the Blue Devils in in transition leading by a pair of goals with less than three minutes to play, Sexton caused a midfield turnover that was gobbled up by senior Kiera McMullan. Moments later junior Casey Pearsall put it home to make the score 9-8 Duke with 2:15 to play. Duke controlled the draw and prepared to enter an offensive stalling mode but junior Alex Dalton created a turnover to give the Irish the ball back.
Lacking a timeout, Notre Dame went into an offensive set as time would down that resulted in Pearsall finding junior Cortney Fortunato on a high-low play for a goal to tie the score at 9-9 with 18.8 seconds left in regulation. The goal was the third of the game for Fortunato, capping her 28th hat trick for Notre Dame. The Irish are now 23-5 in those contests.
Notre Dame’s only previous trip to extra time this spring came in a 10-9 loss at Louisville on March 5. While all knew the eventual final score on Saturday would be 10-9, the Irish leadership ensured that they would be the ones reaching 10 goals on the day. While Duke won the draw control to open overtime, the Blue Devils would lose control of the ball, scooped up by McMullan. After a timeout, the Irish began to work their offense with Sexton eventually coming in from off of the wing, gaining a step on her defender and firing home the game-winner just past the midpoint of the field.
“It was something that we had been running throughout the game,” Sexton said of the final score that sent her teammates scurrying onto the field in joy. “I felt confident with the ball. It’s something that Kiera and I had talked about. When it came down to it, I took care of my shot and finished.”
The rally would be a common occurrence today for a mature Irish team that would complete its seven-game ACC schedule with a winning record at 4-3. In the first 10 minutes of the game, Duke took 1-0 and 2-1 leads but the Irish answered back on goals by Sexton and senior Stephanie Toy, respectively. Duke mounted a 4-0 run over the next 20 minutes of play but Notre Dame responded with a 5-0 run to take its first least of the day at 7-6 with 18:00 to play.
Duke responded at 17:13, tying the game at 7-7 on a Kyra Harney goal and it triggered a three-goal Blue Devil run that put the visitors up 9-7 and set the stage for Notre Dame’s dramatic victory with a three-goal run of its own.
Strong play by the Irish defense helped keep the Blue Devils to just nine goals on the day – the ninth time in 15 games where Notre Dame has held its foe to single digits and the third time in its four ACC wins. Notre Dame caused 15 of Duke’s 17 turnovers on the day, a calling card category for Halfpenny’s fast, aggressive and passionate defense that is aiming to lead its conference in caused turnovers for the fourth year in a row.
Freshman goalie Samantha Giacolone made seven stops in the Irish goal, nearly half of the 13 made by Duke All-American Kelsey Duryea in the Blue Devil net, but enough to help fend off the Duke offensive charges. While the Blue Devils turned the ball over 17 times, Notre Dame relinquished it just 12 times, tying its second-lowest sum of the year. The Irish were successful of 16-of-19 clearing attempts Saturday.
“They know what they want and this team wants to win,” Halfpenny said proudly of the Irish. “The reality is they had a lot of belief that what we have will be enough. They trusted each other. They knew the ball would go on the floor. They knew they would get their chances. But they also made chances. They didn’t leave anything to chance.”
Notre Dame enjoyed an invigorating win on a picture-perfect South Bend day. The team will have to flip the switch quickly, however. The Irish play host to No. 6 USC at 4 p.m. on Monday. The Women of Troy stand at 14-0 on the season after a 14-11 on Friday night at Northwestern.
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.