Feb. 11, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The No. 11 Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team is set to open its 2014 season on Wednesday night at 5:00 p.m. against Cincinnati inside the warmer confines of the Loftus Sports Center.
Third-year Fighting Irish head coach Christine Halfpenny, 25-10 thus far in South Bend, sat down with UND.com to discuss her outlook on a historic season for her team. The Irish begin play in a conference (the ACC) that can claim five of the top six teams in this week’s IWLCA top 20 poll and has captured 14 of the last 27 national championships. Notre Dame will face nine ranked opponents in 2014 as the Fighting Irish look to earn their third straight NCAA Tournament berth and sixth in seven years.
Notre Dame brings back 17 monogram winners from the 2013 squad that went 12-5 and was ranked as high as No. 5 nationally. That unit was augmented by one of the country’s top recruiting classes, keyed by three-time high school All-American Cortney Fortunato. Preseason IWLCA All-Americans Barbara Sullivan and Margaret Smith help provide the experience that will infuse with the young talent to make Notre Dame a formidable foe in 2014.
There is much to look forward to this spring and coach Halfpenny was palpably gleeful as she answered the following questions.
First off, let’s go through your team position-by-position. What can we expect to see out of your attack?
“We feel like we have incredible depth at the attack. We graduated our top two scoring threats and they did a lot of damage for us last year but behind them, we had a lot of players who were able to gain valuable playing experience and show the ability to distribute the ball, shoot the ball, shoot off of a feed and shoot off of the drive. Overall, we’re excited about the depth.
“With the combination of the rookies we brought in, along with the veterans, we feel like we have one of the more dynamic and creative offenses in my tenure here. We’re excited as we look at what we’re doing with the ball this year, how we’re attacking, the tempo we’re playing with and the ability to have the ball go through a number of different players’ hands. It’s going to be great to see the newfound creativity amongst the different players. A credit to our team, they’ve pushed themselves outside the box. We’ve seen an amazing lacrosse IQ and the willingness to try new things and not be perfect all the time, which has led to a lot of exciting looks that we’ll be putting out there this spring.”
How is the midfield outlook?
“I dare to say our midfield is the deepest it has ever been in our 18-year history. We’re 10-deep at the midfield and having that many midfielders we can put on the field allows us to push the pace. We also have strong middies that can contribute on both ends of the field and not just between the 30s. This year we have a high expectation that our midfielders will be amping up their scoring ability and finding those critical points combined with our low attackers. We also hope they will allow our defense to play the highly-aggressive style that will help us lead the nation as we did last year at times being one of the strongest caused turnover teams in the country.
“We’re thrilled about or midfield. We have a couple of different looks on the draw with some different three-player combinations that should give us a competitive edge by having possession out of the gate. The stick skills, lax IQ and the pure athleticism in the middies will be a backbone for us this year.”
How are things on defense?
“We return almost everything. It would be the elephant in the room if we didn’t talk about losing (graduated goalkeeper) Ellie Hilling not being in the lineup. She was a mainstay for four years here. But, overall, we only lost one fixture on defense in Emily Connor. We return a lot of strong players. If you look at the stat lines from last year, we’re returning our three leaders in the caused turnover category in Barbara Sullivan, Margaret Smith and Stephanie Peragallo. We’re thrilled to return all of our athleticism and knowledge on defense this year.
“We’re even more excited in how we added on defense in our recruiting class. Not only will they bring more speed to the table and more aggressive play to the table with the rookies, but what’s really come to the surface is how strong our sophomores have developed in the offseason. We’re thrilled with the depth that we have. We have one at each position that can come in and play the style we’re looking for – which is obviously a high-pressure defense. That’s not a secret here any more. We like a high-pressure defense that isn’t afraid to double-team and can make some exciting plays when needed to change momentum in a game.
“We’re pleased with how we’re welcoming our veterans back to the field while getting a nice integration of new players along with those strong defensive fixtures in the starting lineup.”
How have the goalkeepers looked?
“We have three goalkeepers, two freshmen along with returning junior Allie Murray. The competition has been amazing. The intrasquad scrimmage showed some really strong attributes. Our goalkeepers have three very different looks and very different strengths. Ultimately, we’re continuing to work through the process of choosing that starting goalkeeper. Allie Murray shows a lot of competitive edge here, especially with her background of playing with the U.S. Under-19 team. She has developed over the course of the fall to build her game making stops and to be the catalyst for our fast break.
“While our junior has great veteran experience over the past two years of playing in this system and with these teammates, we also feel like the competitiveness of having three goalies has helped them to stay sharp and it makes the coaching staff have to make difficult decisions. We’re thrilled with the depth that we have in goal and that’s not something that everybody has in the country – three strong goalies. It will allow us to choose the goalie that’s making the most saves along with having the most opportunities for a fast break.”
What have the talented freshmen brought to the team?
“Our freshmen have come in and raised the level. They’ve added that naÃƒÆ’Â¯ve bliss where that sky’s the limit and that’s exactly what you want from your freshmen. You want them to come in here and play in that naÃƒÆ’Â¯ve, “can’t be beat” mentality. They bring a nice fresh breath of air and the beauty is that they’re sprinkled all over the field. From the goalkeeper all; the way down to lower attacker, we have a little bit of rookie at every position. It’s been neat to see how they’ve just stepped right in and stepped right up as well as complementing our returning players. We’re thrilled about it.”
How do the four captains tie everything together?
“They are four unique personalities but they embrace it and work so well both together and with the coaching staff. They all have different focuses whether it is their positions on the field or whether it is what they are doing next after lacrosse. They all have a different focus right now but, when they come together, they are like four pieces of a puzzle that will be a vital part into what this team achieves. I believe that they can spread themselves out and show this team what it really means to be passionate and believe in something with all your heart. They have a great ability to communicate with the coaching staff. We are excited that we have these four individuals and personalities to help steer this ship into the right direction this year.”
What are your thoughts heading into ACC play?
“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best and in order to beat the best, you’ve got to play the best. We’re going to see how that shakes out. We’ve seen it across the sports here at Notre Dame in the ACC.
“We feel that, for us, this is a season of firsts. We’re going to take it one game at a time. We’re thrilled to be the very first ACC game of the season, inviting BC here on February 15. That might seem aggressive for other teams out there that aren’t starting conference play until the end of March but we’re excited about it. We as though, when you are in the best conference in the country, let’s go ahead and come out of the gate swinging. That’s exactly what we plan on doing.
“We can’t get too jacked up after BC, win, lose or draw, because we’re going to turn around the next week and have a top 15 game (vs. Stony Brook) and then face the defending national champions (North Carolina). These are teams we’ve wanted to face for a long time. We’re excited about the incredible competition that we’re going to get and we know that we’re ready for that challenge.
“Our main goal is one game at a time and to see if we can go 1-0. Realistically, why can’t we? Why not Notre Dame this year? We feel as though we have a great opportunity here in front of us.”
Have you been pleased with the preseason?
“The top-to-bottom depth that we have found is something that we are excited as a staff to work with. The combinations we can put out on the field have grown. We are playing that fast, passionate, and aggressive style that we are looking for. The feeling in the locker room and in practice is high. You can feel that energy. “As a coach, you want to get your players excited and full of belief in what they are doing. That’s what’s going on. Credit for that is going to go to the players. They are grinding day-in and day-out. Whatever we have for them, they are taking it, attacking it and dominating it and that’s exactly what you want to do in preseason. We are playing fearless.”
What excites you about this team?
“I think that what is really exciting me is watching them starting to believe in the mission and to believe in the top 10 Fighting Irish lacrosse team. This has been a team that is showing great flexibility. They have the ability to be loose. They have the ability to laugh, but also to embrace the adversity. I believe that is a sign of a special team. We are able to be in the middle of practice and just laugh at things but then really focus and get after it. I like the bonds that they are creating and the leadership they are putting forth.
“Everyday we as coaches are not just walking away saying we got that done. We are saying “that was fun” and I think that is a sign of a really exciting team.”
This is your third year here. How is it going so far?
“It’s a continuum of the re-cultivating plan. There is a lot of clicking right now. We put in a high-pressure defense two seasons ago we are starting to see the fruits of all that labor pay off. I think that we are starting to see the same payoff with the offense. We have been working on a creative, motion style of offense where anyone on the field could be a scoring threat.
“In year three you are starting to see all the “ah-ha” moments come to the forefront. I’ve enjoyed building the last two years and seeing it come together in year three is exciting. Our team leaders understand what we are doing and see the vision. Year three quite honestly has been a lot of smiles, a lot of joking around, and a lot of fun. That excites me. That means that we are continuing to stay with our process and we trust the process. Now we are going to take it one game at a time and we are really going to enjoy the journey.”
What’s the next step?
“Winning a first round tournament game would be huge for us. There is no difference this year than last year and the year before I was here. You come to Notre Dame to win championships but in order to get those championships you have got to get over the hump. When we do that and get over that hump, we really feel good about what else is going to be in front of us and what we are going to set ourselves up for. This group our seniors did win a first round BIG EAST game as freshman so they know what that feels like to advance and continue in a tournament setting. This program has not been to the second round since 2009 in the NCAA Tournament. We are excited about that opportunity and we feel confident about it moving forward.”
What has been the best part of being at Notre Dame?
“I think it goes back to the student athletes that we attract here. In an institution like Notre Dame you’re always going to attract the best of the best, the cream of the crop. It an opportunity that I feel so blessed to have. Even through the adversity you know that having the opportunity to be apart of these young peoples’ journey throughout their time here at Notre Dame is remarkable. To watch their successes and to have opportunities to celebrate them together I think is by far one of the most unique things here at Notre Dame.
“It spreads beyond the student-athletes. I believe that we have the best support staff, the best resources. One of the most unique things here is that Notre Dame is an incredible community and our small-knit community extends to the staff and the people and that makes me feel fortunate. It continues to wow me at how special all the people are here at Notre Dame.”