Jan. 14, 2015
It’s four months until the NCAA Championships and it’s 26 degrees on a snowy Sunday in South Bend–but lacrosse is most distinctly in the air inside the Loftus Sports Center on the University of Notre Dame campus.
The Irish men’s lacrosse program has been on a roll of late. Kevin Corrigan’s program played in the NCAA title game last Memorial Day in Baltimore (as the Irish did in 2010) and now has reached the Final Four three of the past five seasons.
Notre Dame and Duke are the only two schools to advance to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championship in each of the last five seasons–and Notre Dame and Maryland are the only two programs to earn a spot in the NCAA Championship field in each of the last nine years.
The Irish in 2015 return enough impressive pieces of the puzzle to rank second in the preseason rankings by all three major polls–the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (coaches), Inside Lacrosse and Lacrosse magazine.
Junior attack Matt Kavanagh ranks as one of the most dangerous and creative scorers in the country–he’s a preseason first-team All-American. Sophomore midfielder Sergio Perkovic, at 6-4, 220 pounds, boasts the size, speed and skills to become a dominant college star. He scored five goals in the second half alone of the 2014 NCAA title game against Duke–and that has something to do with his second-team preseason All-America status.
It’s intriguing that arguably Notre Dame’s two most visible individuals for 2015 are offensive standouts in Kavanagh and Perkovic for a program that, at least of late, has built its most enduring reputation on the success of its defense and goaltending.
But none of that means anything in January as Corrigan and his Irish return to campus a few days before the spring semester begins for mini-camp. Today is about basics and fundamentals and building chemistry.
The team has dinner at 5 p.m. Saturday at Parisi’s, just off the south edge of campus, and then the players attend either the Notre Dame men’s basketball game against Virginia or the Irish home hockey contest versus Western Michigan. On Sunday, it’s down to business:
9:45 a.m. – The nets are down around the Field-Turf surface at Loftus, and the bleachers are littered with players’ winter jackets as the Irish throw and catch on their own.
10 a.m. – By the time Corrigan and assistant coach Gerry Byrne arrive, the players are lined up and stretching on their own.
“The first practice this morning is going to be relatively easy,” says Corrigan. “We’re going to review and get caught up on things from the fall. But we’ll go full speed.”
The Irish go through 15 minutes of stick work by position, two periods of offense against shell defense, a couple of periods of shooting, another of clearing, then finally some man-up and man-down situations.
“Let’s bring good energy and have fun out there,” says Corrigan.
Corrigan works mainly with the attack, Byrne with the defense, assistant Matt Karweck with the midfielders and volunteer assistant Kevin Anderson with the goaltenders.
10:15 a.m. – The attackmen come from behind the goal to find their shots, then Corrigan brings a bag of balls up top and the players sprint down both alleys to shoot.
10:18 a.m. – Corrigan calls out various plays as the offense runs four-man drills, while the goalies work on cross-field passes over the top.
10:20 a.m. – Instruction goes on all over the field, and the coaches are vocal in that regard. Says Byrne, “Every guy knows how we communicate. You learn from every possession so you can use what you learn in the third and fourth periods.”
The middies run a three-man drill, with quick shots from the wing.
10:25 a.m. – The scoreboard horn sounds and Corrigan calls out the first-day lines from his hand-written depth chart for the morning. There’s a blue unit and a gold unit based on the reversible Irish pennies.
“We’re not shooting live here, but we’re going full speed,” he says. Senior Conor Kelly starts in goal–and there’s plenty of chatter as the work intensifies.
“Less words and louder clarity,” yells Byrne, as Corrigan identifies the plays he wants to run.
10:30 a.m. – The next drill is all about ball-handling, with no shots involved. Byrne says, “Get out and meet the guy in space. It’s better to be loud and wrong than quiet and right. This highlights how important ball possession is.
“Numbers, numbers . . . “
Says Corrigan, “You were just floating in there. You’ve got to get a man. Here we go.”
Senior defenseman Henry Williams marks Perkovic.
“Keep playing,” says Corrigan. “You’ve got the matchup.”
10:37 a.m. – Corrigan and Perkovic talk strategy during a brief stoppage. It may be the first day after winter break, but the passing is crisp and the ball movement is sound in six-on-six work.
10:40 a.m. – Time for shooting. Corrigan directs two lines of attackmen. One pass from the goal line extended, one move, one shot. The defense works on clearing.
“Get to a spot and get your footwork right,” preaches Corrigan.
“Let’s get midfield dodges. Feed the guy in front of you,” says Corrigan.
10:50 a.m. – Time for teamwork on clearing. Corrigan uses a green board to draw up a formation.
“When the pole comes, Henry goes deep top center,” says the Irish head coach. “Here’s the spacing. We’re doing this 10 on 10. Look to make subs effectively and efficiently.”
“Cut and present like you want the ball,” says Byrne, “even if you’re not open.”
“Play as far off the ball as your speed allows,” offers Corrigan.
The Irish play full-field, with Karweck and Anderson managing substitutions.
There’s lots more talking all over the field.
11 a.m. – “That’s a great job,” says Corrigan. “Did everybody see Sergio? Great job.”
11:10 a.m. – “Middies, if you’re riding, when do you go with the guy or drop off? It’s all about ball pressure,” says Corrigan.
11:15 a.m. – Corrigan asks for five more minutes on the scoreboard clock to try another wrinkle in this segment. He’s constantly making corrections and adjustments as the Irish work their way through the drill.
“One more time in this direction.”
11:20 a.m. – Corrigan and Anderson confer at midfield.
“In all these situations, ” says Corrigan, “we can only play aggressively if the backside guy gets back. We need backside help.”
11:25 a.m. – The Irish offense works against shell defense. Corrigan identifies plays–10 press, 10 heavy, 10 straight.
It’s six on six and the matchups are of the blue-chip variety. Williams tracks Perkovic. Landis checks Kavanagh. There’s no live shooting, but there are plenty of battles for real estate in front of the goal. Middies Will Corrigan, Nick Ossello and Perkovic flip their pennies from blue to white halfway through the segment. The lime-green head on Perkovic’s stick is hard to miss
“Five more minutes now on defense,” says Kevin Corrigan.
11:40 a.m. – The last segment stresses man-up and man-down emphases. There’s a question from Corrigan on whether live shooting makes sense, and Molloy signs up for that.
Corrigan and Anderson work with the top man-up unit at one end, with Byrne and Karweck with the number-one man-down group at the far end of the field.
11:50 a.m. – Perkovic rifles a shot over Molloy’s left shoulder into the top corner of the cage, but Molloy comes back to make a nice save the next time.
“Don’t settle, you’ll get your shots. Move the ball around. Don’t become easy to guard,” says Corrigan, as Molloy makes another save.
Meanwhile Ossello, with a whistle around his neck, leads faceoff work at the 50-yard line, including freshman John Travisano and sophomore P.J. Finley.
Doyle rips an underhanded shot past Molloy, then Corrigan moves him in front of the crease.
12:03 p.m. – The horn sounds and the first session is done. Faceoff guys stick around for some extra work.
“Great start,” says Corrigan. “We’re just going back through everything we’ve done. This afternoon we’ll go a little two on two and four on four, some slide and recovery and a little scrimmage later.
“We’re going to ride people this year. This may be our first practice, but we’re going to work on riding out there.”
12:12 p.m. – The Irish players head back to their Arlotta Stadium team room for lunch from Chipotle, a few hours of rest and recovery and a chance to get their sticks restrung for the new season.
“I don’t care whether it’s conditioning, nutrition, hydration or something with Mandy (Merritt, the Irish athletic trainer). If we can find a way to be one to two percent better in some area, that can be the difference in games,” Corrigan adds.
Strength and conditioning coach Kevin Enchelmeyer retrieves GPS devices from the backs of player pennies. Lacrosse routinely uses six of the devices and today borrows another half-dozen from men’s soccer so the strength staff can regularly analyze the work done by Irish players.
3 p.m. – Ping pong games are in full swing at Arlotta, as Irish players lounge in shorts and sweats and take in the second half of the NFL playoff encounter between the Packers and the Cowboys.
3:18 p.m. – The Notre Dame team watches DeMarco Murray score for Dallas to give his team a 21-13 edge. Ten minutes later an Aaron Rodgers TD pass cuts the Cowboy lead to 21-20.
3:30 p.m. – As the crowd from a Notre Dame home women’s basketball game empties out of Purcell Pavilion, the Irish head back to Loftus.
3:48 p.m. – Notre Dame players quietly throw and catch, and the coaches chat as a group to confirm practice details.
4 p.m. – “We’re going to change up our preparation a little and do a more dynamic stretch,” says Corrigan.
The players form 10 lines at midfield and start by jogging 50 yards and back. Then it’s on to skipping with their arms in circles, sideways jumping jacks, 20 yards of backpedaling, leg kicks, lateral lungs and 15-yard sprints, all led by Enchelmeyer.
4:10 p.m. – “This afternoon we’re going to do a bunch of the pieces of what we do–ground balls, crease work, three on three, four on four. We’ve got to do the little things with diligence–that’s what we’re all about,” says Corrigan
4:25 p.m. – The atmosphere gets physical as players engage in one-on-one battles for ground balls all over the field.
4:30 p.m. – Byrne calls out, “Do the extra work so you can do a good transfer pass.”
The Irish play six attackers versus two defenders (Williams and Ossello) and a goalie (Conor Kelly).
“I don’t want to give up goals we should prevent,” says Byrne.
“Keep those guys in front of you. Don’t let them split you,” adds Corrigan.
“This isn’t a goal prevention drill. This is about communicating your roles,” says Byrne.
4:45 p.m. – The three-on-three session commences and there are picks galore, with communication again the priority. Middies work at one end, attack and defense on the other.
4:58 p.m. – The horn sounds and it’s on to four-on-four work. Corrigan runs through the various Irish offensive calls.
“Attack the space. That was a perfect example of getting a guy in the middle of the field with a shortie on him. Right idea, right idea.”
The drill slows as Irish coaches offer tips after every sequence.
5:05 p.m. – The horn sounds again. “Who is gonna decide if we’re lions or tigers? We’ve got to have that kind of communication. Your role changes constantly. This drill is all about communication,” says Anderson.
5:15 p.m. – As snow begins to fall outside and darkness ensues, Kyle Trolley connects on an underhanded attempt past Molloy.
“That’s pretty good defense,” says Anderson. “If we had the other two guys (instead of just four on four) we’d be fine.”
5:28 p.m. – Now it’s five on five. The play is initiated from up top with a defender a step behind and to the inside of the man with the ball.
“If no one slides, go straight down the hash and shoot from seven yards,” instructs Corrigan, as he switches from one end of the field to another.
Ossello jumps down the hash and fires one past Kelly, as no one slides.
5:37 p.m. – Lubowicki flips one in behind his back and over his shoulder, drawing a few oohs and ahhs from his teammates.
“If you want to play defense, every time your head moves, your hips move and your torso opens up,” says Byrne.
5:40 p.m. – It’s scrimmage time, the most enjoyable part of the day for the players.
“Okay, we’re gonna go up and down a little bit,” says Corrigan.
“We’ll switch middies after 10 minutes.”
Ossello and Finley face off at midfield with 20:00 on the clock and a little more than a minute into the action Perkovic scores on Doss for the blue team.
Anderson monitors subs for the white squad, while Karweck does the same for the blue unit.
Anthony Marini ties it with a goal against Kelly at the 15:15 mark, then Perkovic clanks a try off the cage at 12:48. Kelly makes a nice save against Runyon at 11:41, and Lubowicki misfires on a pair of opportunities.
Freshman middie Pierre Byrne connects at 9:44 to give the blue squad a 2-1 edge, and the middies change sides.
Rookie Zack Bartolo ties it up, scoring right off the faceoff, but Perkovic responds less than a minute later with a left-handed blast. At 5:51 Molloy makes a point-blank save.
On the final possession of the session, the blue squad knocks the ball loose. It’s one final teaching moment for the Irish coaching staff.
6:05 p.m. – The Irish are done for the day.
“It was a good hard day,” says Corrigan. “Let’s stretch before we finish up, then we’re back on the field at noon tomorrow.
“On Monday and Tuesday we’ll go through everything we’ve already been through and then we’ll start moving forward. By Thursday we’ll be on to some different stuff.”
6:15 p.m. – Adds the Irish head coach, “We can’t take anything for granted. We need 49 guys working hard every day. If someone’s sick or out, we’ve got to make sure we’re sleeping right and eating right so we’re in peak form. Make sure you use Mandy as a resource.”
It’s exactly two weeks until Notre Dame’s first exhibition contest (Jan. 25 vs. Bellarmine), but Corrigan considers that part of the preseason work.
“We’ve got five weeks until Georgetown (the first Irish regular-season game). We’ve got to be the best team we can be on Feb. 14.
“See you tomorrow at 11:45 right here.”
The players grab chocolate or strawberry milk, put their jackets back on and head back to Arlotta Stadium in a light snowfall.
Corrigan stands at the large whiteboard and reviews Irish slides with freshman Patrick Hadley to end the day.
The Irish two-a-day session is in the books. Classes begin in two days, and the lacrosse will come fast and furious the rest of the way.
Day by day and practice by practice, the Irish will build for what they hope will be another successful NCAA run.
Today is simply the start.
— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director