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Irish Culture: Big Expectations

March 28, 2018

By John Heisler

Everybody in college athletics talks about competing for championships.

It’s another thing to do it.

It’s yet another thing to do it consistently.

Both the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball and hockey teams are celebrating noteworthy accomplishments in that regard this week as they prepare for their respective championship weekends.

Muffet McGraw’s women head to Columbus, Ohio, where they play Friday night in their eighth NCAA Final Four-and their sixth in the last eight years.

Jeff Jackson’s hockey team travels to St. Paul, Minnesota, next week to participate in the NCAA Frozen Four. It’s the second year in a row his Irish have reached that destination and the fourth time overall (also 2008 and 2011).

The Irish women have played on the big stage well enough-including five straight Final Four appearances from 2011-15-that now the only programs with more Final Four appearances are Connecticut (19), Tennessee (18, but none since 2008), Stanford (13) and Louisiana Tech (10, but none since 1988).

The Notre Dame hockey unit has plenty of teams ahead of it in terms of Frozen Four berths, yet the Irish track record is impressive considering no Notre Dame hockey team played in the NCAA Championship until 2004. Other programs in this decade with back-to-back Frozen Four appearances include Minnesota-Duluth (2017 and 2018, like the Irish), Denver (2016 and 2017) and North Dakota (2014-15-16).

Like every other head coach on campus, McGraw and Jackson have attempted to build cultures where those championship level appearances become the norm.

The proof is in the final scores.

Irish teams produced a tidal wave of postseason success over the weekend:

–Jackson’s top-seeded hockey team won NCAA East Regional games Friday and Saturday to advance to the Frozen Four April 5 and 7. His Irish carry the number-one ranking into that final weekend.

–McGraw’s women’s basketball squad won games Saturday and Monday as the top seed in the NCAA Spokane Regional to move into the Final Four this weekend.

–The Irish fencing team claimed its second successive NCAA title Sunday in State College, Pennsylvania.

–Notre Dame finished 23rd (its best in program history) in the NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships that concluded Saturday night in Minneapolis.

Irish associate head coach Paul Pooley was a head coach for 11 years at Providence and part of Jackson’s staff at Lake Superior State for NCAA title runs in 1992 and 1994. He has been in South Bend for all four Irish Frozen Four appearances.

Associate head coach Carol Owens joined the Irish women’s basketball staff in 1995, later spent five seasons as head coach at Northern Illinois, her alma mater-then returned to McGraw’s staff in 2010-11. She has been part of all eight Final Four runs with the Irish.

Associate head coach Beth Cunningham was a senior captain on Notre Dame’s first women’s basketball Final Four team in 1997, served as head coach at Virginia Commonwealth for nine seasons-and has been back on McGraw’s staff now for six years, four of which have featured Final Four stops.

Pooley knows it’s not simple to reach this level and stay there:

“It’s so hard to win. The last seven years in hockey there’s been a different NCAA champion. So many things have to fall in place for you and luck plays a little bit of a role.”

Pooley understands the fine line between victory and defeat, considering Notre Dame’s four one-goal wins (two in overtime) at the NCAA regional level in 2017 and 2018.

“Last year’s experience certainly helped us from the very beginning of this year in terms of what it takes to get there. That’s been kind of a driving focus for the players and for us as coaches, too, in terms of what it takes to win. We looked at all the things–the details and the fundamentals.

“Every year is a bit of a grind with the personalities and your team. Who is going to take a step for you? There’s not much difference between teams in college hockey. The Michigan Tech game (a 4-3 overtime win Friday in the NCAA East Regional semifinals) was one of the hardest games we played all year. And we’ve tried to stay in the moment in terms of what we do. Jeff has really tried to emphasize that. Every practice is important, and this group has been consistent and really quietly poised and confident in themselves. And they’ve seemed to be very resilient. They’ve not been overtaken by the moment. They have been mature enough to handle it, and that’s what you want as coaches.”

Owens remembers when the Irish women played in their first Final Four in 1997, her second season with McGraw:

“It’s all about the steps you take. In 1997 we thought the best thing that ever happened to us was getting to the Sweet 16. We had kind of an underdog mentality because we had to win on the road at Texas in the second round. But our kids were locked in and we just painted the picture of what it takes to win. The team just started believing.”

Owens, Pooley and Cunningham all agree that building a culture that’s about goals and expectations is critical to the process.

Says Owens, “The expectations for us have changed over time. It’s winning games and it’s also understanding as coaches what our potential is. We talk about getting to the Final Four as our potential and that’s how we coach every day. We set goals and Coach McGraw does a good job of asking the players what they want-‘If this is what you want, this is how we have to practice. This is the mentality we have to have in every game we play. This is Notre Dame basketball.’

“We slowly but surely built a tradition where we were no longer underdogs. There’s now a tradition of how we play. We recruit a lot of kids that have won at a high level so they know how to win. We want winners around and we want to recruit unselfish players-that’s why we’ve had so much success.”

Pooley also understands the current Irish hockey team is motivated in part by its loss in the NCAA semifinals a year ago-while Cunningham notes that despite the recent Notre Dame women’s basketball run of Final Fours, seniors Katrina Nelson and Kathryn Westbeld are the lone players on the current squad to experience a Final Four.

“You’ve got to be able to see yourselves doing it,” says Pooley. “We’re going to the Frozen Four this year with a purpose. That’s hard to instill sometimes as coaches because it’s got to come from the players in the dressing room. You want to recruit the kids that have these expectations for success. We want to be a top-10 hockey program. We want to have the success we’re having. It comes from the kids we recruit–that they have that desire and want to be pushed and challenged.”

Says Cunningham, who was part of Notre Dame’s first NCAA women’s basketball win in her junior season (an upset victory over fifth-ranked Purdue in Lubbock, Texas, in 1996), “You talk about it at the beginning of the year in terms of setting goals and expectations. Since I’ve been here those goals and expectations haven’t changed-it’s going to the Final Four and winning a national championship. That’s what it is every year.

“When you’re recruiting kids and we were going on that run of five in a row, you can’t take it for granted, but that’s what you want to do. This is the first year in a while where even our juniors like Marina (Mabrey) and Arike (Ogunbowale) haven’t been there before.

“Each team has to figure out its own path for how to get it done. When you haven’t done it before it’s still new for you. In recent years for us it was upperclassmen showing the way because they’d been there before.”

Pooley notes that a visit in Bridgeport last weekend by former Irish captain and standout Steven Fogarty reminded him how culture plays a role in attempting to realize all those high-level expectations:

“Since his junior year (2014-15) our team culture has been particularly good in terms of getting better and doing what it takes to succeed. The success the last few years has been a result of that.

“The culture is huge, and it’s class to class. One class accomplishes this, so the next one wants to make sure it’s doing that–in a nice competitive way. But you’ve got to have those expectations for yourself. It starts with Jeff and what we’re trying to do on the ice.

“And in any season, how do you handle adversity? You’re going to have bumps in the road. This year’s been a little different. We did not have too many bumps until we won the Big Ten and then we had a few. It refocuses you. It’s the details, the saves, the power-play goals. It turned into a lot of one-goal games.

“Jeff is a really, really good team-builder. What can each player do to help us be successful? It all goes into what we’re trying to do as a team. This team has had the ability to win close games. ‘Close game? We’re good. We’re gonna win it.’ That’s been the attitude.”

As the Irish hockey and women’s basketball staffs both know, it ultimately comes back to their players making big-time plays in critical situations. Those are the moments that produce memorable victories and build that culture.

“The other night in Bridgeport, Michigan Tech ties it up in the last minute and we go out and find a way to win in overtime,” says Pooley. “It was a tight game and we found a way. At Wisconsin back in December, we’re down a few goals and come back and win in the third.

“Ultimately they’ve got to play. But that’s where the culture has really progressed: ‘We’re gonna win this game.'”

McGraw’s women’s basketball team this week attempts to add to its Final Four tradition in Columbus, while Jackson’s hockey club will do the same a week later in St. Paul.

They’ve both built programs where the expectations are top shelf.