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No. 17 Notre Dame Heads to No. 4 Virginia

April 3, 2015

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – The Renaissance began with a Rachel Sexton goal just 17 seconds before halftime of Notre Dame’s win over Virginia Tech on March 14. Home at last for the first time in a month, losers of three in a row and facing the Hokies in their first ACC home contest, the Irish trailed their unranked competitors, 7-6 as halftime beckoned.

Stephanie Toy setup Sexton for the strike that put the Irish back on track. Notre Dame would outscore Virginia Tech, 8-1, in the second half and cruise to a 15-8 win over the Hokies. A week later, No. 15 Ohio State came to Arlotta Stadium and, behind a 10-3 second half, Notre Dame blew past the Buckeyes, 13-5.

Notre Dame went northward to Marquette on March 25 and dispatched of Marquette, 18-8. The Irish may have come out on the short end of a 9-8 decision on Sunday against No. 3 North Carolina, but Notre Dame stood toe-to-toe with the Tar Heels after a slow start, ending the game on a 7-2 scoring run. The Irish significantly outshot the Tar Heels and beat North Carolina on both the ground ball and turnover tally sheets. Only the stellar 13-save goaltending effort of Caylee Waters kept the Irish from extending its current run to four games.

“To win these games, closing them out by making a couple plays is all we’ve got to do,” head coach Christine Halfpenny said of how her team has stayed focused to escape holes in these games and its early-season schedule in the bigger picture. “It keeps it pretty simple. Play our style. Play hard. Play focused. Play together because there was some serious spirit out there (against North Carolina).

“This team has its shoulders back and heads up. It believes in itself. It believes in where it’s headed. They know they have five more (regular-season) opportunities to prove themselves to everybody else.”

The past four games have seen Notre Dame outscore its opponents 54-30. Cortney Fortunato has been playing like the All-American that she is on attack, averaging six points per game with 19 goals and five assists for 24 points. Over this run, 12 different players have scored for Notre Dame, including four (Grace Muller, Katherine Eilers, Emma Claire Fontenot and Shauna Pugliese) who have not started any of the four games. Goalkeeper Liz O’Sullivan has posted a 7.70 goals against average since March 14.

The Irish have enjoyed a 72-58 advantage in ground balls over the past four games, a 72-51 cushion in turnovers (including a 51-27 edge in caused turnovers), a 51-40 draw control margin and a 92-55 lead on its foes in shots on goal.

Halfpenny sees some of the details making the difference.

“They keep on learning individually how they need to come in and approach the game,” she said. “Not just understanding our game plan, but their little game plan within that bigger plan. To get an entire week to prep for UVa is huge. It allows us to build off of the Carolina positives – there were so many positives – and to lock in on our game and to understand what we’re up against. (Virginia is) a really strong team that’s hot right now.”

As Halfpenny alludes to, this run is coming at a good time for the Irish, which face a daunting road trip this Easter weekend. Notre Dame will play No. 4 Virginia on Saturday afternoon in Charlottesville before heading north to No. 7 Syracuse for a Tuesday night game at the Carrier Dome.

Virginia enters tomorrow’s contest on a roll. The Cavaliers have won each of their last six games, including capturing ACC wins over Duke and previously-undefeated Boston College.

Standing at 6-5 on the season with five regular-season games, plus the ACC tournament to go, the tide couldn’t be turning for the Irish at a more opportune juncture. The Irish season got off to a slow start but has seen the ship turn course in the past three weeks. Games against Virginia Tech, Ohio State and North Carolina didn’t start off well but Notre Dame righted its way.

It is a role and mind-set that the Irish are familiar with and one which their head coach knows she would like to see more of at Virginia’s Klöckner Stadium on Saturday at 1 p.m.

“Our backs are against the wall,” she said. “We need wins. We have to be .500 to be considered to be invited to the NCAA tournament. We’re well aware of that, but I think our team thrives in this situation to be honest. When it gets a little bit hot in the kitchen, we start cooking. That’s something that excites me about this group – they haven’t backed down from a challenge. They get that it’s not going to come easy. It’s going to hurt.”