May 23, 2016

History will detail some never-before-accomplished items by the 2016 University of Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team:

–The Irish for the first time ranked number-one in a preseason poll (both the Inside Lacrosse media poll and the Lacrosse magazine poll).

–Notre Dame spent its most extended period in the number-one slot-nine weeks in the Lacrosse magazine top spot and eight in the Inside Lacrosse premier position. The Irish learned what it meant to be the hunted as opposed to the hunter.

–Notre Dame, for the third year in a row, won some portion of an Atlantic Coast Conference title-in this case a share of the regular-season crown.

–The Irish extended their string of NCAA Championship quarterfinal appearances to seven-the best active streak in the nation.

Along the way Notre Dame posted victories over a half-dozen ranked opponents-Georgetown, Maryland, Syracuse, Duke, Marquette and Air Force.

Yet none of that meant much Sunday afternoon in a somber Ohio Stadium locker room where the floor was littered with disappointment, frustration and some tears.

It’s never supposed to end this way. This veteran Notre Dame team had every reason to think at least a third consecutive NCAA Championship Weekend was in reach. But a North Carolina team that hadn’t reached that level in 23 years had other ideas.

In reality, something seemed to change four weeks ago when Notre Dame played in Chapel Hill. The Irish went into that game as the consensus number-one team in the nation, riding a five-game win streak and needing only to defeat the Tar Heels to finish off a second consecutive unbeaten ACC regular-season slate and claim the top seed in the ACC Championship.

But Carolina figured something out that day, even after Notre Dame built a seemingly comfortable five-goal lead with 10 minutes to play. Dominating face-offs and possession time, the Tar Heels scored the last seven goals of that game to win 17-15. On the verge of maybe not making the NCAA Championship bracket, the Heels suddenly became the number-one seed in the ACC Championship. A month later in Columbus, Carolina did the same thing, dominating at the face-off X, controlling the ball and building an insurmountable 10-2 lead. Both those scenarios generally have been foreign to a consistently dependable Notre Dame defensive unit.

The premise of the game of lacrosse sometimes is quite simple-put the ball into the net. That goal proved elusive Sunday for the Irish, who were three of 24 in the shooting category through three periods, with midfielder Sergio Perkovic finishing the day with 14 shots and nothing to show for them.

At halftime the four-goal deficit harkened back to a 2013 NCAA first-round game in South Bend in which the Irish trailed 5-1 at the break and came back to win 9-7 against Detroit. But Sunday there was no Columbus comeback to be found. North Carolina seemed to find goals wherever and whenever it wanted them in the middle two periods, and the Heels won 11 of 15 second-half face-offs. Notre Dame put together a five-goal string over an 8:25 span in the late going, but that barely salved the wounds.

“I feel like we left a lot of opportunities on the field today,” Corrigan offered to his players when it was over.

“We just didn’t make the plays, right? We just didn’t make enough plays. We didn’t put our best 60 minutes on the field today. Everybody in this room feels like they’d like to tee this one up again tomorrow. But that’s not how it works.

“We take the lessons out of this that we can-there’s plenty we can learn from this. I’m every bit as disappointed as you guys are. We’ve got a lot of guys in this room that have won an awful lot of games and been awfully successful in the time they’ve been here. And we’ll look at all the things we’re doing and find a way to get better.”

There’s a suddenness, a sadness and a finality when the season ends. The Irish seniors routinely offer their raw reactions in that postgame locker room scene, and those are tough assignments.

Irish seniors including All-Americans Matt Kavanagh and Matt Landis contributed bucket loads of production and leadership that won’t be easy to replace. After previous NCAA stops in the title game (2014), semifinals (2015) and quarterfinals (2013), they had big designs on something loftier this time around. But it didn’t happen that way.

In the big picture, Kavanagh, Landis, their fellow captains Eddy Glazener and Conor Kelly and the rest of the Irish seniors did their part to ensure Notre Dame consistently remains in the national conversation. The Irish now have been seeded sixth or better in six straight NCAA brackets-and no other program has accomplished that (Denver, Duke and Syracuse have been seeded in five of those six seasons). Instead of game-planning for Loyola, the Irish spent Monday in an end-of-year meeting, discussing compliance issues, summer employment and offseason competition details. In the never-ending transition that is college athletics, Irish fans now must look for Landis and Kavanagh on Major League Lacrosse telecasts. Corrigan will build in 2017 around returning regulars Mikey Wynne and Ryder Garnsey at attack, Sergio Perkovic and Brendan Collins at midfield-and Garrett Epple and goaltender Shane Doss on defense.

Maybe it’s fitting that an enduring image from Sunday came with a little more than eight minutes left (and the Irish trailing 13-5) when Landis picked up a ground ball out of a face-off and headed full speed right toward Tar Heel goalie Brian Balkam. Landis’ shot went wide, a Carolina defender clobbered him-and Landis had to be supported off the field by fellow captains Kavanagh and Glazener (Landis’ chin later required stitches).

“I’m sorry the way it ended, but I’m not sorry for the journey,” added Corrigan. “I love the way we compete.”

As the highest-seeded team in Columbus, the Irish found themselves assigned to the Ohio State football game-day locker room. The walls were covered with scarlet and gray tributes to great Buckeye teams, including eight that won national championships.

The Notre Dame men’s lacrosse program’s search for that level of glory begins anew in 2017.

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.