March 1, 2014
BLACKSBURG, Va. – As the No. 12 Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team continues to develop over the 2014 season, a series of steps will have to be taken by a youthful club. The next rung on the ladder is capturing the team’s first ACC victory, a feat the Irish (2-2, 0-2 ACC) hope to accomplish on Sunday afternoon at Virginia Tech (3-1, 0-0).
The youth movement has begun to take hold on the field. Seven of the team’s top eight scorers are freshmen or sophomores, the lone exception being a junior in Caitlin Gargan. Five different freshmen have played in all four of the team’s games to date and three freshmen (Alex Dalton, Cortney Fortunato and Casey Pearsall) have started all four games. Of ND’s 74 points on the year, only three (two Molly Shawhan goals and a Kaitlyn Brosco assist) have come from seniors.
Fusing this youthful energy with the veteran experience of some of the team’s more seasoned players will certainly be a recipe for success as 2014 progresses.
Senior Margaret Smith is in her second year as a team captain and clearly sees that larger picture and the promise that lies ahead of her team.
“The young kids play with so much passion and heart,” Smith said. “Going forward, that’s going to be something that defines us. There are freshmen and sophomores out there a lot. I’m finding myself in a role of being a much better communicator than I have in the past with this youth. When I have done that, it has been effective.”
Smith has done her part in anchoring the defensive end of the field. She leads the team with eight caused turnovers while her nine ground balls are just two off of Brie Custis’ team-high 11. Smith had a particularly busy night on the stat sheet against No. 1 North Carolina on Thursday in Chapel Hill with four ground balls, two draw controls and four caused turnovers. No other player on either team caused more than two turnovers in the game. Smith’s 87 career caused turnovers are fifth-best in school history.
The possibilities for greatness this spring were evident in the 19-9 loss to the Tar Heels when looking beyond the lopsided score line that was aided by some costly Irish turnovers in its own defensive third. The Irish matched UNC with 15 draw controls apiece after UNC entered the game with a 75-45 edge on its opposition this season to date in draw controls. Notre Dame won the battle of ground balls, 28-25. The Irish scored nine times, the most tallies surrendered by defending national champion UNC in 2014. The fight showed by the Irish can also be reflected in Shawhan driving and scoring with one second left in a game that Notre Dame trailed 19-8 at the time. Shawhan’s goal was the 24th and final shot of the night for Notre Dame against a Tar Heel defense that entered the game allowing its opponents to line up just 19.5 shots per game.
“It was tough to lose to UNC by a lot but, when we watched film, there were so many good things that came out of it,” Smith said. “There were a lot of positives to focus on. We scored some great goals and we fought hard to the end. We had great plays on a lot of those goals. UNC is a physical and fast team. For us to be able to compete with them on draws and ground balls was definitely a confidence builder.”
That rebuilt confidence has made its way north up I-81 to Blacksburg, Va. where Notre Dame and an old conference rival will get reacquainted in a few conference. The Irish and Hokies faced off four times from 2001-04 as BIG EAST members with Notre Dame winning all four contests by an aggregate score of 68-36. The alma mater of Notre Dame head coach Christine Halfpenny back in the Hokies’ Atlantic 10 Conference era, Virginia Tech enters its first ACC game of the year at 3-1 with wins over High Point, Elon and Longwood and a loss at James Madison. Notre Dame will be its first contest against a ranked foe in addition to it being Virginia Tech’s ACC opener.
Smith thinks that a win on Sunday at Thompson Field would represent the logical next step in the progression of a young but talented Irish side.
“We haven’t won an ACC game yet,” she said. “That would be huge towards having the confidence that we can play in this conference. We know that, luckily, after UNC, it’s early on in the season. We’re still learning and growing. It’s easy to move on and focus on the next game. We know that if we can come out of here with a win then we’re setting ourselves up for success.”