Feb. 20, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – There may not be another university more national in its scope than Notre Dame and, while its women’s lacrosse team reflects this by featuring 10 states on its roster, the Fighting Irish clearly get plenty of their fight from Long Island.
Many of Notre Dame’s top players grew up or played club lacrosse on Long Island’s 118-mile expanse. Countless miles heading back and forth on the L.I.E. soaking up the lacrosse-filled land help forge an identity that is appealing to Notre Dame head coach Christine Halfpenny.
“I love the grit,” she says of what she finds there. “Long Island kids have been playing since they were young and their passion has been lacrosse. Lacrosse is huge on the island. Their stick skills are different. Not too many Long Island kids come off of the island without being able to play with two hands right away. The IQ is high. The competition level is so high that some years in New York it may be harder to get off of the island than to win the state championship once you get to SUNY Cortland. I’m from Albany so I know how those Long Island teams come and grind you down with great athletes playing at a high level.”
“Long Island lacrosse players are tough,” said preseason All-American Barbara Sullivan as the Garden City, N.Y. native echoed her coach’s sentiments. “We’re made from the same cloth. It’s nice to look to your right and left and know that people are thinking the same thing that you are.
“I’m proud to be from Long Island. I think Long Island is the best place to come out of for lacrosse. It’s back and forth between us and Maryland, but I’ll take Long Island.”
One advantage of having a team full of student-athletes that think alike on the field, already know each other personally and feel instant comfort is how well it can help acclimate freshmen both into a system of play and an academic setting. Junior Caitlin Gargan, who leads the Irish with 11 points through two games, recalled what a difference her Long Island ties made two years ago when she arrived in South Bend.
“I had the opportunity to play with Barbara, Cortney Fortunato and Julia Giorgio before I got here and Jenny Granger, who graduated last year,” the Rocky Point, N.Y. native said. “That familiarity factor is a big deal when you first get here. It helps knowing how each other plays, and that comfort level knowing that you can play here because you’ve played with these players before. Now, you’re just wearing a different jersey.”
“It helped coming in as a freshman,” Hauppauge, N.Y.’s Stephanie Peragallo added. “You have people on the team that you already kind of know, whether it’s from playing on the same travel team or against them in high school. The high school rivalries don’t carry over. It’s more of a family here.”
Notre Dame’s Long Island players share a universal bond, one that will be helpful when the team returns to action, because, as Fortunato said, “it means a lot to be from there.” After some time to refocus and hone their game after a tough ACC loss to Boston College, the Fighting Irish return to the field and a reminder of Long Island will await.
Saturday night, the Seawolves of Stony Brook will be in town to take on No. 15 Notre Dame at the Loftus Sports Center. Ranked No. 12 by the IWLCA and No. 14 by the media, the central Long Island school is a first-time opponent for the Fighting Irish program. However, the level of familiarity amongst several of the individual Irish players is high. Much of the Stony Brook roster claims Long Island as its home, which means that several of the Irish players in particular know exactly what is in store.
“When we play coming up, club or high school, we play a gritty style,” Gargan said proudly of her native region. “We play with that chip on our shoulder. We think we’re the best and we go out and try to prove that to our peers every day. The Baltimore kids all play one style. Us Long Island kids play another. We like to duke and out and see who’s the best.”
No one can pinpoint exactly why the Long Island lacrosse culture is so strong. Participation rates being extraordinarily high and players starting to learn the game at a younger age are the most common answers. Fortunato pointed out that it is the main sport, one whose immense local popularity relative to many other regions intensifies the locals’ fervor for it as a part of a unique identity. Peragallo knows it goes deeper than just that though.
“It’s our attitude,” she said. “We’re very tenacious. It’s not that we can’t be beat. It’s just that we won’t let anyone beat us.”
Notre Dame’s Long Island contingent might not be completely alike. They differ on preferences for the Yankees and Mets or the Jets and Giants, even the Uniondale-based Islanders vs. the Broadway Blueshirts of the Rangers, but they are like an extended family in South Bend.
“It’s a social thing,” said Giorgio who grew up across the Throgs Neck Bridge in Greenwich, Conn. but was one of several Irish players who played club lacrosse for the Long Island Yellow Jackets. “We talk about girls that we know or places back home. It carries over into everyday life. We’ve known each other since we were younger and we’re just building on that now.”
“Long Island is a hotbed for lacrosse players,” Gargan said. “Coming up, you set your sights big. We got to see kids before us come to big programs like Notre Dame all the time. Coming from Long Island we get to idolize a lot of players and it was a blast to grow up in that culture of Long Island lacrosse.”
“People I admire on high school teams from middle school age got to go to amazing schools for lacrosse and you wanted to follow in their footsteps,” added Sullivan.
One name that every youngster still on Long Island today knows is Fortunato. It permeated through to other regional hotbeds such as Maryland, New England, upstate New York and, increasingly, here in the Midwest. The three-time high school All-American, two-time academic All-American, and all-world pick from Team USA’s Under 19 gold medal-winning squad at the 2011 World Championships is a proud daughter of Northport, N.Y. One advantage of coming to Notre Dame was the ability to fuse her precocious game with countless regional styles of play at such a truly national school.
“Different places play a little differently,” said the freshman attack. “To bring that all together here at Notre Dame and have the strengths of each of those hotbeds of lacrosse come together is unique. Switching it up makes for a better team. Everyone adds to each other’s game.”
Peragallo echoed that same sentiment that regions which rival Long Island, fused with what the island provides, makes Notre Dame a far more formidable and versatile team than many regionally-based competitors.
“A lot of the time, if you’re from Long Island, you go to a Long Island school,” the sophomore defender said. “I think that Notre Dame is different. You have all of the different playing styles from all over the country working together and it blends well.
“It’s a team. Once you get here, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. It’s all Notre Dame.”
“While we do have a national footprint, when you look down at our roster and see that six of our 33 are from Long Island, it’s because they can bring something great to the table,” Halfpenny said of her squad as a whole. “We like that. Will we ever be a team full of Long Island? No, that doesn’t make sense for us. We want to be a microcosm of our entire University and continue our national recruiting. However, when we can find the special student-athletes that reflect our Notre Dame values, that’s when the match is made and they come to South Bend.”
With regularity, several of those special student-athletes just happen to come to Notre Dame carrying a cell phone with a 516 or 631 area code and a Mets or Yankees cap packed away in their bag.