March 20, 2016
By: John Heisler
The good news for the University of Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team in 2016 was that the Irish returned two of the most talented, competitive and visible players anywhere in collegiate lacrosse in senior captain Matt Kavanagh and junior midfielder Sergio Perkovic.
They’ve scored in droves, they’ve made clutch plays (see Perkovic late against Denver in the 2015 NCAA semifinal-see Kavanagh against Albany in overtime in the 2014 NCAA second round), they’ve made magazine covers.
Heck, Notre Dame had never even had one returning first-team All-American before 2016-and this year the Irish have three (also senior captain Matt Landis, chosen the best defensive player in the country in 2015).
The other side of the equation represents the hard part. Perkovic and Kavanagh are hardly secrets to opposing defensive coordinators. So, despite whatever offensive sequences Irish coach Kevin Corrigan concocts, Perkovic and Kavanagh draw double-teams, they draw long-pole defenders, they draw automatic defensive slides. The other teams generally decide they’ll let anybody on the Irish roster beat them other than Kavanagh and Perkovic.
So, that’s why-coming into Notre Dame’s game Saturday with Atlantic Coast Conference rival Virginia–it seemed like months since Perkovic had scored. That’s an exaggeration, of course, because the junior from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, had managed four goals in the Irish opener last month against Georgetown and four more a week later against Detroit.
Perkovic had one late, open-net goal March 5 against Maryland, then he had only a single assist last weekend versus top-rated Denver (he missed on all seven of his shots, six on goal).
The Virginia game did not start much better. Notre Dame’s very first possession lasted nearly three minutes and featured six missed shots by the Irish, three of them by Perkovic-and the possession ended on a turnover charged to Notre Dame’s 6-4, 220-pound junior. And the opposing defender assigned most of the night to Perkovic-Virginia junior midfielder Michael Howard-just happened to stand 6-5 and weigh 220, capable of going, literally, shoulder to shoulder with his Irish adversary.
At halftime, the game was tied at two, the Irish had turned the ball over nine times-and both Perkovic and Kavanagh had been hit with penalties. Notre Dame goalie Shane Doss kept his team in it with nine first-half saves because nothing was coming easy on the offensive end.
But, finally, the Irish found some breathing room. Kavanagh, who can create space for a shot in a closet, had given his team an early 1-0 lead on a goal from in front after a wild ground ball scramble. After the visitors from Charlottesville nabbed a 4-2 advantage on two tallies in the first 25 seconds of the second half, Corrigan’s crew got to work.
Perkovic broke through with a goal a bit more than five minutes into the third period (with an assist to rookie Ryder Garnsey), tying the game at four. After the Cavaliers went up 5-4 (Virginia scored on three of its first four shots in the second half), Kavanagh tied it again on an assist from Eddy Lubowicki at the 1:26 mark of the third period.
The theme song from “Rocky” blared from the loudspeakers between the third and fourth periods-and it appeared the Irish needed every bit of motivation.
Twice in the final period Virginia grabbed one-goal leads-and both times the Irish responded. The first of those-coming out of a Notre Dame-called timeout at 4:16 of the fourth–was a nifty effort by Lubowicki who found himself open on the right side after Perkovic drew multiple defenders and made the critical entry pass.
All the air went out of the Irish balloon at 1:24 of the last period when Virginia’s Ryan Lukacovic was credited with a goal after Doss made the save and the ball appeared to enter the net off the foot of a Cavalier player. Virginia led 7-6.
The ensuing faceoff produced an outrageous ground ball fight right in front of the Irish bench, and Notre Dame managed possession and a timeout call at the 1:04 mark as darkness enveloped Arlotta Stadium on a cloudy, 39-degree evening.
That’s when Perkovic did his thing, creating just enough space to let one of his 100-mile-per-hour missiles fly to tie the game with :23.9 on the clock.
Another post-faceoff scramble ensued, and Virginia called timeout at :16.8-but the Irish defense held the Cavaliers without a shot in those final seconds.
That meant overtime at Arlotta for the second time in seven days.
“All Night Long” by Buckcherry rang out from the stadium speakers.
Next came probably the biggest play of the night. The overtime faceoff turned into a mad rush, and somehow Notre Dame sophomore John Sexton, with long pole in hand, emerged cleanly with the ball. There were all kinds of collisions in a dozen or so seconds, and it was obvious the officials had no intention of blowing a whistle. They let the players decide it-and Sexton won the battle.
It took all of 29 seconds for Perkovic to elude Howard just enough to fire the ball past Virginia goaltender Matt Barrett (he played gamely, making 11 saves), off the pipe and into the net.
Game over. The Irish win 8-7.
Perkovic flipped his stick-and Irish players and fans mobbed him.
When Irish captain Eddy Glazener in the postgame locker room presented the Irish “man of the match” award to Perkovic, Glazener referenced the “game winner from Loftus” (the Notre Dame indoor facility to the north of Arlotta Stadium).
Maybe, just maybe, that will jumpstart Perkovic, Kavanagh and the rest of the Notre Dame offense.
Corrigan knows he has a solid-even spectacular-defense, and Doss has been better than advertised to date. The Irish ride has been ultra-productive, and Notre Dame simply needs to keep being creative and patient in six-on-six situations. As much as Kavanagh and Perkovic wish they could snap their fingers and make highlight-reel plays on demand, it isn’t that easy. Those two and the rest of their teammates simply need to be selfless in their approach and there will be plenty of plays to be made.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we kept our composure,” Corrigan told his players after the game. “If nothing else, we are battlers. We’re the Fighting Irish.
“What I love is nobody is standing around moaning and complaining about what didn’t happen. We’re looking to make the next play. How do we make the next play? And how do you make the next play after that? That’s how you win games at the end-that’s great stuff. And most of the time we’re hard to score against, we’re hard to play against. People have to really grind it out against us. We’ve got to keep doing that.
“We know we’re not there offensively. We’ve got to find a rhythm there. What we did in the last minute we’ve got to find every day, every time. We’ve just got to work on the pieces every day.
“In the meantime we’ve got to keep fighting, keep going after those tough ground balls. At the end of the game that is the game.”
“It’s a hard way to live,” added Corrigan later. “These games are tough on wives.
“Maybe the smart thing is for guys like Serge to lay back early and see how they’re playing him and then adjust and jump on those. But that’s hard, that’s a learning process of seeing how they scheme against you. He’s getting better at it. He’ll get looks over the course of the day. He’s like Kavanagh (he had a team-high six ground balls Saturday)-they do what needs to be done at the end to make a play.
“We’re riding really well, we’re playing defense, we need to get better offensively.”
Corrigan is a basketball junkie and before the game he talked to his team about what it means to be a great team in the NCAA Basketball Championships:
“Three-quarters of the field probably qualify as great teams. They maximize what they have and play to their strengths, they have a common vision and play their roles seamlessly. They aren’t focused on themselves-they’re focused on the success of their teams. That’s what great teams are. That’s what I want for us-to focus on all the little things that can make us great.
“When we get to Saturday it’s about what do you do well. Playing fearlessly. It has everything to do with what you are capable of doing.”
To expand on the basketball analogy, maybe Perkovic and Kavanagh are the Steph Curry and Klay Thompson of Irish lacrosse, fully capable of making rainbow three-pointers any time they can manufacture slivers of space.
Ironically, on the same night Curry’s and Thompson’s Golden State Warriors dropped a game at San Antonio (with Curry and Thompson shooting a combined 11 for 38 overall and two for 19 on three-point attempts), maybe the Irish down the road will look back on the overtime lacrosse win over Virginia as a breakthrough of sorts for Perkovic and Kavanagh and the rest of the Irish on the offensive end.
The Irish have played six games and have six remaining (not counting the ACC Championship).
There are plenty more defensive schemes to be diagnosed.
The Irish are banking on the likelihood Perkovic, Kavanagh and their teammates are up to that challenge.
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. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.
The University of Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team pursues excellence on and off the field through the three pillars in which the program is built: Character, Culture & Community. These three foundational values guide the promise of the program, which is to provide its student-athletes with the most compelling and enriching experience in all of college athletics. Through academics, competition, service and travel, the program aims to immerse its players in situations that enhance their student-athlete experience to help them become the people, students and teammates they aspire to be.
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