Feb. 21, 2016

By John Heisler

The top-ranked University of Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team Saturday renewed one of its old rivalries left over from its BIG EAST Conference days, facing the 13th-rated Georgetown Hoyas.

But, for a change, the game was not played in either Washington, D.C., or South Bend.

The location? How about Atlanta (actually north of the city on the campus of Kennesaw State University)? And how did that happen?

Here’s how that major market suddenly has emerged in the lacrosse community:

— The Atlanta Blaze, an expansion outdoor pro team in Major League Lacrosse, plays its first season in Atlanta in 2016.

— The Georgia Swarm indoor pro box lacrosse team is playing its initial campaign in the National Lacrosse League (the franchise, previously based in Minnesota, is owned by Notre Dame graduate John Arlotta).

— Saturday’s glossy doubleheader featured the top three college teams in the country (the top-rated Irish, followed by second-ranked Denver defeating third-rated Duke 14-12 in the second game), along with the Hoyas. There are plenty of NCAA Championship Weekend brackets lacking that firepower.

— In both 2016 and 2017, the power-packed Atlantic Coast Conference will bring its men’s lacrosse postseason tournament to Kennesaw State–with the Irish and Blue Devils both planning for that event.

Looking for another Atlanta/Irish connection? On the sidelines Saturday was Wes Pritchett, former Irish football star linebacker from the 1988 championship squad (and an Atlanta product and current resident).

With all that as a backdrop on an overcast, 59-degree day, Irish head coach Kevin Corrigan sent his squad out to do battle for the first time in 2016.

“We talk a lot about all the little things, like communicating on ground balls and making slides defensively. But, how do we prepare mentally? Do we exercise poise in everything we do? The maturity of a team matters,” he said.

“Emotions are a big part of today’s game. This is a big opportunity for Georgetown and they’re going to come out flying. We have to match that in terms of intensity and enthusiasm and with poise of our own.

“You know what you want. You have to use control in the way you go and do it.”

The Irish did indeed suffer a few early jitters, turning the ball over three times in the opening minutes and prompting Corrigan to call a timeout just more than five minutes in to make a few points.

It proved to be the Irish defense, and particularly junior goalie Shane Doss, that set the tone in the opening period. Doss pitched a shutout in the first 15 minutes, making six of his 14 saves in the quarter (on 10 shots by the Hoyas).

Meanwhile, the Notre Dame offense played its way through those early miscues–and it also didn’t hurt to have a 6-4 All-America midfielder with a rocket for a shot. Junior Sergio Perkovic opened the scoring on a nifty, long entry pass from defender Garrett Epple. Sophomore Mikey Wynne made it 2-0 at the 4:23 mark–and 10 seconds later off the faceoff sophomore long-stick middie John Sexton notched his first career goal.

With captain and All-America attackman Matt Kavanagh drawing consistent double teams around the cage, he resorted to playing from behind the goal and found Perkovic open with a minute remaining in the first quarter. That made it 4-0 to end period number one.

“The first couple of shots, the defense made it easy for me and that just builds up the confidence to start and allows me to make some harder saves as the game goes on,” noted Doss. “The defensive middies really helped me starting the game out there.”

Kavanagh wheeled around the goal and took a feed from senior middie Cole Riccardi to push the margin to 5-1 at 10:53 of the second, senior middie Trevor Brosco made it 6-2 (on a Brendan Collins assist), then Wynne’s unassisted tally at 7:31 made it 7-2–the largest lead of the afternoon for Notre Dame.

“We try to get off to hot starts,” said Perkovic. “We had some unsettled situations on the offensive end, and that got them back on their heels.”

After Georgetown made it interesting by notching the opening two scores of the second half (to cut the lead to 7-5), freshman Ryder Garnsey and Perkovic helped end the drama with goals within a 52-second span. The Irish closed out the 12-7 triumph by accounting for three of the last four goals–a fourth by Perkovic (the only man-advantage score of the day by either team), one by freshman defender Hugh Crance, plus Wynne’s third marker.

“First games are like that,” Corrigan told his team after the contest. “It’s the good, the bad and the ugly. Sure, there are some things you’d like to do better, and we’ll eliminate some of those things.

“You never know what an early-season game means. All you can do is control what you can control.

“You took away their early actions, the things we thought they would do, and forced them into other things.”

Kavanagh finished with a team-high five points (one goal and four assists, one short of his career high for assists against Dartmouth in 2015). It was an afternoon in which the Irish profited handsomely from finding Perkovic with space 12 to 15 yards in front of the goal.

“You only get 12 chances at this in the regular season, so we were pumped to be out there finally,” said Perkovic. “We had a few mistakes, a few jitters, but I thought for the most part we played well–especially at the faceoff, in goal, on defense.”

The Irish head coach made sure to remind his players to enjoy the moment, because winning is hard:

“In so many ways it was a typical first game. We had a few sloppy turnovers, some mental errors. But that’s a first game–there’s a lot of emotion out there. You can’t manufacture anything in practice that looks exactly like this. We gave away some possessions, but the good news is we played through that stuff.

“Our face-off game was really good today (the Irish won 17 of 22 overall, 16 of 21 by junior P.J. Finley)–I was excited for the job those guys did. Our defense played very well–in a first game you don’t really know what those guys are doing, you can guess and you can look at last year. So at the end of the day we took away their ‘knowns’ and we forced them to go searching for things a little bit on offense. I thought that was really significant.”

Notre Dame’s head coach referred to Perkovic, Kavanagh and Wynne as the Irish offensive “knowns.”

“Our guys know that if we play good lacrosse around them, those guys are going to make some plays,” said Corrigan. “There’s a selflessness to that that the rest of our team has to adopt. They have to think, ‘I’m not worried about getting mine, I’m worried about us getting ours.’ If they all play that way, everybody will benefit, and especially Serge and Kav because they are such playmakers.”

While Corrigan downplays it, the number-one sign remains lit high atop Grace Hall on the Notre Dame campus, signifying the top ranking for the Irish program.

“We have the same mindset, getting better every day,” said Perkovic. “We’ve always thought of ourselves as one of the best teams in the country, and we’ve only played one game, so there’s not much difference. We still have a sense of urgency to get better quickly.”

And now the Irish have exposed another market to a flavor of Notre Dame lacrosse.

The Irish also took a postgame team photo surrounding John Michael Night, a former lacrosse player from Trinity Prep in Winter Park, Florida (he planned to play at Mercer), but suffered a brain stem stroke in December 2015 and remains in a wheelchair. Night and his family came to the game wearing Irish gear.

“The atmosphere here was terrific,” said Corrigan. “They’ve got an indoor pro team down here, plus the outdoor pro team. This is as good as any college event in the regular season this year, and then you’ve got the ACC Tournament here. That’s terrific stuff to have all that going on in the lacrosse community here–when has Baltimore (the historical hub of lacrosse) had a better year than that?”

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:

— Troy Murphy: His Relentless Yet Fun-Loving Approach Did the Trick

— Sunday Brunch: Irish Officially Hot . . . But Shhh

— Sunday Brunch: Panthers Deliver Solid Impression of Irish

— DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky

— 2016 Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame-Ohio State Preview

— Joyce Scholars: Connecting the Irish and Buckeyes

— One Final Version: 20 Questions (and answers) on Notre Dame Football

— Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:

— Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner–and Moves On