April 23, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – As the No. 11 Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team practiced on Wednesday afternoon at No. 5 Virginia’s KlÃƒÆ’Â¶ckner Stadium ahead of Thursday’s ACC quarterfinals matchup with the Cavaliers, the Irish certainly looked comfortable. After all, it was just 19 days ago, April 4, when Notre Dame built an 11-0 lead over Virginia on that same grass field en route to a 14-4 victory.
That sun-splashed Easter weekend Saturday marked Notre Dame’s first-ever win over Virginia, and the largest margin of victory over a ranked team for the Irish since downing No. 19 Cornell, 20-7, on March 7, 2004. The Irish had only once previously beaten a ranked team on its on-campus home field by double digits, dropping No. 15 Stanford, 16-5, on Feb. 29, 2004 in Stanford.
Notre Dame would pick up both of the ACC’s weekly accolades after the Virginia game, the only time this year that either one has gone to the Irish. Cortney Fortunato (six goals, two assists, eight points) earned the league’s offensive accolade (and national player of the week honors). Liz O’Sullivan tied her career high with 11 saves and shutout UVa for the game’s first 42:03 to earn a share of the league’s weekly defensive award. Meanwhile, Barbara Sullivan tied a school record with nine draw controls in the game.
The question which will be answered when the teams square off on Thursday is whether or not the lopsided contest 19 days ago is a harbinger of a likely Irish victory or the impetus for a furious table-turning Wahoo rebounding rally.
“That was a special day for Notre Dame lacrosse but I’ve never had the same collegiate team show up twice, no matter where I have coached,” Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny said. “Never once have I had the same carbon-copy team show up because they’re 18 to 22 year olds. I respect that. I understand that. My staff and I are prepared to coach whatever team shows up. Whatever that team needs on that day, we’re going to give it to them.”
On April 4, Notre Dame’s mindset was one of urgency. After starting the season 3-4, the Irish had rattled off three straight wins before losing a tight, 9-8, decision to No. 3 North Carolina, leaving the team at 6-5 heading to Charlottesville. To be eligible for NCAA tournament consideration, a team has to have a winning record which, for the Irish, means nine wins. The race to get there was in full-stride.
Notre Dame would win each of its next three games, following up the win at Virginia with victories over No. 7 Syracuse and Michigan to improve to 9-5 on the year and return to the top 10 of the polls. Goals were realistically readjusted from merely making the NCAA tournament to becoming one of the eight schools privileged to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, like the Irish did in 2014.
What followed was a disappointing week for Notre Dame. Last Thursday night the Irish dropped a 10-9 game at home to its biggest regional rival, No. 7 Northwestern, in a contest where the Irish led three times in the second half, including a 9-8 advantage in the game’s final five minutes. On Sunday, No. 14 Louisville spoiled Senior Day at Arlotta Stadium, holding the Irish to just two second half goals in a 10-8 upset – the Cardinals’ first-ever win over Notre Dame in seven tries.
Notre Dame fell to No. 20 in this week’s RPI rankings. With only 26 teams making the NCAA field and the possibility of upsets in conference tournaments granting automatic bids to lower-ranked teams, the sense of urgency has ratcheted back up for Notre Dame.
Conveniently, it puts the Irish back into the same mind-set they brought to KlÃƒÆ’Â¶ckner Stadium on April 4, although that day’s actual 14-4 result is the furthest thing from Irish minds.
“That game seems like forever ago,” Halfpenny said of the 14-4 contest. “The reality is, we’re focused on ourselves once again. We’re back to the point we were at before. Our backs are up against the wall. We need another great win. We’re looking for our 10th win. We did not get that this past weekend. We should be coming into this game with a chip on our shoulder with something to prove.
“We are seeing this as the opponent that is in our way right now. We don’t see Virginia. We don’t see the field. We basically are looking at each other and saying our focus has got to be being the best Notre Dame team that we can be and improving from our last time out in order for us to get the outcome we want.”
On the other side, Virginia checks into the game at 11-5 with lopsided wins over Louisville and Virginia Tech since losing to Notre Dame. Likely to continue their homestand into the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend, Virginia’s competitive situation is one which allows for a deeper look into the events of April 4.
“They’re on their home field and that will add fuel to their fire and comfort to them,” Halfpenny admits. “It’s human nature to think revenge and redemption.”
Either Notre Dame or Virginia will advance to Friday’s ACC semifinals. What the role of a 14-4 Irish win between the sides just 19 days ago will be, presents one fascinating question.