April 16, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The top two women’s lacrosse teams in the Midwest battled toe-to-toe, punching and counter-punching through six ties on Thursday night at Arlotta Stadium. Befitting of a prizefight, it would be settled by a 10-9 score with No. 7 Northwestern narrowly out-slugging No. 10 Notre Dame.
On the heels of a comparably close 9-8 Irish win last year against the Wildcats, the two foes traded blows down the stretch before Sheila Nesselbush’s goal with 3:44 to play broke the final tie at 9-9 and gave the Wildcats (10-4) the win over the Irish (9-6).
Both goaltenders, Notre Dame’s Liz O’Sullivan and Northwestern’s Bianca Blanco, stopped nine shots. Most major stat categories were also fairly even including shots (29-27 for Northwestern), ground balls (25-23 for Notre Dame) and turnovers (20-24 for Notre Dame). Northwestern led draw controls, 13-7, and that possession edge proved to be one of the few true advantages either side enjoyed in a 10-9 battle.
Caitlin Gargan scored three times and added an assist to pace the Irish offense. It marked the senior’s first hat trick of the year as she became the eighth Notre Dame player to record a hat trick in 2015. Selena Lasota scored four for Northwestern while Kaleigh Craig added three goals.
“That was a standard Northwestern-Notre Dame game,” Gargan said. “There’s a lot of back-and-forth. There’s not a lot of good feeling between the teams. It was very intense – no love lost. Everybody finished plays hard and you felt it on the field.”
The teams traded goals to open the game but Northwestern would soon produce the only true scoring spurt of the evening, rallying off three straight goals to take a 4-1 lead by the midpoint of the first half. Cortney Fortunato snapped the Wildcat run while Grace Muller and Gargan would each tally before intermission as the teams would head to their locker rooms with Northwestern leading just 5-4.
Notre Dame tied the game at 5-5 just over five minutes into the second half when Casey Pearsall found Fortunato. It was Pearsall’s team-high 17th assist of the year and Fortunato’s milestone 50th goal. It’s the most goals by any Notre Dame player in a season since Jillian Byers’ school-record 83 in 2009. Lasota put the Wildcats back on top with her lone goal of the second half, but Notre Dame got the next two goals to tie the game and then take its first lead at 7-6. Heidi Annaheim fed Gargan from behind the net for the first goal and Gargan then set up Rachel Sexton for the go-ahead score.
The teams continued this back-and-forth sequence as twice Northwestern scored to tie the game followed by a goal by the Irish to retake the lead. After Craig made it 7-7, Notre Dame scored a crazy goal to go up 8-7 as Bianco saved Annaheim’s shot but the ball deflected straight up in the air where it was lost and landed behind Bianco, rolling into the net. Tied 8-8, Notre Dame regained the advantage at 9-8 when Muller’s shot was saved by Bianco but the rebound went directly to Stephanie Toy who scored on a one-timer on a play more akin to ice hockey than lacrosse.
Craig found a seam in the Irish defense and tied the game at 9-9 with 4:56 left to play. Northwestern won the draw and Nesselbush scored unassisted with 3:44 to go, giving Northwestern a 10-9 lead, its first since it was 6-5. The final 3:44 hardly lacked for action as both O’Sullivan and Bianco made clutch saves to keep their respective teams in the game but both would hold their ground and Northwestern would escape from South bend with a crucial regional victory.
“We gave ourselves chances all the way to the final 10 seconds and we just couldn’t convert,” head coach Christine Halfpenny said. “That was tough.”
The Irish hope to quickly put the loss behind them because Notre Dame plays host to No. 14 Louisville on Sunday at noon in its regular-season finale. The emotions of Senior Day at Arlotta Stadium will add fuel to the fire as the Irish aim to both return to their winning ways and finish with a winning record at 4-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference – the nation’s toughest league.