May 19, 2016

Matt Kavanagh: Things I Know
This is an exclusive interview with Notre Dame’s men’s lacrosse captain and All-America attack on the eve of the Irish NCAA quarterfinal matchup with North Carolina. A senior from Rockville Centre, New York, Kavanagh leads the Irish in scoring with 19 goals and 29 assists. He’s eight assists away from breaking the Notre Dame career record in that category. Kavanagh graduated earlier this month with a degree in film, television and theatre from the College of Arts and Letters.

One of my best friends from back home is Mike Starsia. His uncle is Dom Starsia, the head (men’s lacrosse) coach at Virginia. My dad worked with Dom’s brother Richie–and Mike and I grew up in the same town and went to the same high school. Virginia never recruited me, so Mike always gives his uncle a hard time about that. That’s how I kind of got into lacrosse. I went to the (NCAA) final fours in the early 2000s (Virginia won NCAA titles in 2003 and 2006). That got me thinking D-1 sports.

I didn’t think I was going to be a college lacrosse player. I was thinking hockey. But I had a pretty good season my junior year and I had started to talk to (Notre Dame assistant) Coach (Gerry) Byrne throughout the season. And then after the season it really got going. I committed while the Notre Dame team was over in Japan on its foreign trip after they’d been to the final four. I had been emailing with them and they’d just lost in the championship, so I wanted to give them some time. And I had no idea they were in Japan. I called Coach Byrne and he happened to have his phone on. It was the night Patrick Kane scored the overtime game-winning goal for the Blackhawks to win the Stanley Cup and beat the (Philadelphia) Flyers. So it was a pretty memorable time period. It was cool.

I did an extra year at Hotchkiss and played well there. But it was still another step up (to the college level) and I wasn’t sure how my game would translate. Then I played on the (2012) United States U19 team in Finland at the world championships and that really got me prepared . . . playing against guys like Wesley Berg (he played at Denver) and Lyle Thompson (two-time Tewaaraton Award winner at Albany). It was the best of the best in college lacrosse and that really elevated my game and helped me out the first couple of years here. (Current Notre Dame freshman) Hugh Crance is doing it this year, so I’m expecting the same things from him.

I took a lot away from watching (2013 Notre Dame captain) Sean Rogers who was a senior when I was a freshman. It was about coming to practice every day with the intention of working hard and getting better. As a younger guy it’s easy to get tired and not be into it every day. But seeing that approach from a fifth-year senior captain gets you thinking. It makes you work even harder when you see him doing it. That approach translated to making plays on the field. It’s all about taking care of business–stretching, recovering, working out, everything like that.

My freshman year was crazy. I really didn’t think I was going to start. But leading up to that first game at Duke, Conor Doyle got a concussion and so I ended up starting that game. I had a good game there (four goals, one assist) and then we played at Penn State and I scored in overtime and then the same thing at North Carolina. So those were my first three weekends with lacrosse games at Notre Dame, helping beat three top-10 teams. It was pretty insane. It was something I didn’t think was going to happen, but I’m obviously happy it did.

As a younger guy you’re trying to figure out your role. It’s always evolving. The lineup is always changing and guys are moving positions. Freshman year I was playing on the crease and then sophomore year and last year it was more carrying the ball with Conor (Doyle) and (Eddy) Lubo (Lubowicki). Then with Mikey (Wynne) and Ryder (Garnsey) being the younger guys now, the role changes from following the older guys to leading those younger guys. Giving them what the guys before me gave me-Sean and Conor and Westy (Hopkins) and Ryan (Mix) and John Scioscia. That’s what’s been successful for our attack and our offense and our team as a whole.

I love being a captain. It kind of reminds me of being an older brother and I’m one of five boys in the family with three younger brothers kind of looking up to me. One plays (lacrosse) at Hofstra. I’m not even on the same team as him, but I feel like I’m trying to set an example for him on and off the field. When you are younger you’re always looking at the older guys to see what they are doing-on the field, in the weight room, away from the field. Like it or not when you get to be a senior you have a lot of influence on the younger guys.

I never followed pro lacrosse much in high school. When you get to college you see some of the guys move on that you’ve played against and some of your teammates go on to play. But you don’t pay that much attention to it right now. You get drafted, but you’re too caught up in what’s happening now to even think about it. I’ll give it a shot, but I’m not worried about it.

Being at a school like Notre Dame, people pay attention to our program. Then with the ACC being the best league in the country, all that really puts you in the spotlight on the biggest stage. It has a lot to do with our school and the success we’ve had the last couple of years. We’ve taken that next step with some great players, and all that’s really cool.

Coach (Kevin) Corrigan does a great job giving us heat during the week in every drill, every scrimmage, every rep. So when we come to a crucial situation in a close game we’re able to handle it and play our best because we’ve been drilled throughout the week. Whether it’s warmups or a high-pressure situation in practice, we’ve all been there. It’s all the little details that we go over and those are in our heads. Then when it comes to the games you let it fly. (Notre Dame football) Coach (Brian) Kelly stopped in Wednesday and talked to us when we were watching film and that was one of his messages.

Our attack has really been clicking the last few weeks. Ryder’s (Garnsey) development has been huge in that. He’s been shooting the ball great and passing the ball great. The same with Mikey (Wynne)-he’s finding himself wide open. That’s a credit to our ball movement. Early in the year we were only putting up seven or eight goals. So we looked at a lot of film and we were carrying the ball too much and there was a lot of one-on-one action. We’ve adjusted that and gotten much quicker ball movement so the ball doesn’t get stuck in anyone’s stick. That’s been key for us. You watch the film now and all the assists we’ve been getting have been like hockey assists with two guys making plays. We made some of those adjustments and it’s helped us be more successful the last couple of weeks.

It’s been fun to be part of our success within our campus. We’re friends with guys on the football and hockey teams-I live with (football players) Jarron Jones and Mark Harrell. Some of these guys had never seen or heard of lacrosse, but we tell them to come out and they love it and they bring their friends. You get the stands full and the hill full and you get the other athletes there and it speaks to how successful our team has become.

We came in as freshmen and the year before they’d been in the final four, so those were kind of the expectations. Then my freshman year it didn’t happen when we lost to Duke in the quarterfinals. We came back the next year with the mindset of winning and then got back there the last two years. And now we’ve got another crack at it.

–by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director