March 14, 2016

By John Heisler

The next time Notre Dame and Denver meet in men’s lacrosse, maybe the game program should come with a coupon for an extra bottle of water and a second box of popcorn.

It’s apparent there’s only a smidgen of difference these days between the Irish and Pioneers. That’s been made clear over recent meetings between these two programs-with five of the last six games requiring overtime.

Sunday night at Arlotta Stadium on the Notre Dame campus qualified as simply the latest of those versions.

These two teams now have met three times in the last 372 days-and all three times Denver has prevailed in extra time, including by a 9-8 count Sunday.

The hero (or culprit, depending on rooting interests), for the second time in three Irish-Pioneer meetings, was junior midfielder Zach Miller. He zinged home the game-winner Sunday 1:58 into the extra session, just as he did a little more than a year ago when the teams met during the 2015 regular season in Denver.

That razor-thin margin left both teams, certainly more so the Irish, ruing every last turnover, every last missed shot, every overrun ground ball.

Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan looks forward to the day he and his Irish can do battle with Bill Tierney and his Pioneers without watching the Denver team storm the field. He knows it’s as simple as finding a way to make the last play. That hasn’t made it any easier to address his players in the aftermath of emotion-packed, sudden-death scenarios.

And, though it’s only a handful of weekends into the 2016 regular season, it doesn’t appear to be any accident these two teams have resided at the top of the early polls (Notre Dame number one this past week in the media poll published by Inside Lacrosse, Denver atop the poll of coaches published by the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association the last three weeks).

These are two heavyweight programs-Notre Dame having played on NCAA Championship Weekend four times in six years and twice playing in the title game, Denver having played on Championship Weekend four of the last five years and winning the 2015 crown.

Defense generally carried the day Sunday.

That’s probably no surprise on the Notre Dame front, given the success the Irish have had in that category in recent seasons-plus the fact they came in rated second nationally while allowing 5.5 goals per contest. And, after a rough start that saw Denver cash in for six straight goals, the Irish threw up a brick wall, holding the Pioneers out of the scoring column for more than 28 minutes.

Denver’s defense did its part early as well, with freshman goaltender Alex Ready hanging in there well enough (five saves in the first 10 minutes) to limit the Irish to one-for-17 shooting after P.J. Finley’s early strike. Notre Dame didn’t score for more than 20 minutes (all of the third period and bits of the second and fourth).

Corrigan and his staff shook their heads over the early look of their team. After Finley’s goal right off the opening faceoff, the Irish struggled mightily most of the first half. They committed only two penalties all day, but both resulted in Denver goals before the opening period was half over. Sergio Perkovic (he scored five goals in six minutes last May against the Pioneers in the NCAA semifinal) found space early for some good looks but could not find the net on any of his seven shots (two more than any other player on either team). Matt Kavanagh contributed three assists but had only four shots (two in the last 10 seconds of regulation).

Wynne finally managed the two breakouts goals in the fourth period-and two Denver penalties (its only ones of the game) came 26 seconds apart, leading to a Brendan Collins man-up tally. That began a remarkable stretch of four Irish goals in 43 seconds-just what the Notre Dame faithful required to shake down a bit of thunder:

— Collins scored on a pass from Perkovic at 5:17.

— It took 18 more seconds for John Sexton to grab a ground ball with his long stick and sprint headlong to the goal for a second score.

— Twelve seconds later Wynne scored unassisted and the game was tied.

— Thirteen seconds later Finley added a second goal on a toss from Kavanagh and the Irish somehow had regained their first lead since, fittingly, Finley had given it to them at 1-0 34 seconds into the contest.

All that, for Irish fans, had to bring back memories of 2015 afternoons at Arlotta where Notre Dame found a goal in the final minute of regulation to tie top-rated Syracuse before winning in overtime-and then three weeks later scoring three times in the final 1:15 to defeat second-rated North Carolina by a single goal.

It also brought back scenes of the 2015 NCAA title game when another mad offensive rush late brought Notre Dame back into the contest.

Sunday those six consecutive final-period Irish goals meant Ready had to feel a bit unsteady on his feet.

Yet give Denver credit for stemming the tide. The Pioneers called a timeout after the last of those and somehow regained their breath. Ready made a strong save on a Kavanagh shot on net at 3:11-and 46 seconds later Tyler Pace’s shot somehow dribbled past Doss to tie it at eight apiece.

The Irish forced a turnover after a long Denver possession, but Kavanagh couldn’t find the twine on consecutive attempts at :09.7 and :03.6.

Denver’s Trevor Baptiste, who leads the country in faceoff win percentage, won the biggest of his day (he finished 12 of 21), and the Irish never regained possession.

The biggest disparity in numbers came on ground balls-with Denver’s 43-24 advantage in that category meaning the Irish spent long stretches playing defense until the final-period turnaround.

“We were too excited, maybe too keyed up, because we didn’t play good lacrosse either offensively or defensively the first half,” Corrigan noted to his players after the game. “In the second half the execution was completely different and so was the result. It started with defense, and then offensively we started handling the ball a little bit (better) and putting balls on cage.

“This is the same team as the last three years-we don’t quit. We’ve just got to sharpen some things up for 60 minutes.”

Corrigan noted later to the media, “You always learn as you go through the season. We’re going to get better. It’s a long season.”

As Wynne suggested, the Irish ended up right there at the end, despite really only playing one strong quarter on both ends of the field.

Denver assuredly will be number one this week-the Pioneers now boasting wins over teams rated second, seventh and 10th (Notre Dame, Duke, North Carolina) in last week’s USILA listings.

The Irish will live to fight another day-and who’s to say these teams won’t see each other again in May when it really counts?

If that happens, pack an extra energy bar.

When it comes to lacrosse, Notre Dame and Denver have found 60 minutes of regulation play are nowhere near enough.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.

University of Notre Dame Athletics Communications contact:
John Heisler
Senior Associate Athletics Director
112 Joyce Center
Notre Dame, IN 46556
574-631-7516 (office)
574-532-0293 (cell)

The University of Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team pursues excellence on and off the field through the three pillars in which the program is built: Character, Culture & Community. These three foundational values guide the promise of the program, which is to provide its student-athletes with the most compelling and enriching experience in all of college athletics. Through academics, competition, service and travel, the program aims to immerse its players in situations that enhance their student-athlete experience to help them become the people, students and teammates they aspire to be.

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