Feb. 13, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – With 20 monogram winners returning, including a pair of All-Americans in Cortney Fortunato and Barbara Sullivan, from a team that was seeded No. 8 in the NCAA tournament, expectations or typically high for the No. 11 Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team as the curtain rises on the 2015 season Friday at Cincinnati.
UND.com sat down with head coach Christine Halfpenny for a preseason question-and-answer session as the fourth-year head coach aims to guide her team to its school-record fourth-straight NCAA tournament berth.
Do you like what you see heading into the Cincinnati game?
“So we’re really excited about the amount of returning starters and returning contributors that we have this season. We’ve seen an enormous amount of growth mentally, physically and I think even emotionally on the field of play. We’re really strong at every single area of the field.”
How does the defense look?
“We obviously have vets back in our defensive end. Yes, they may be anchored by two sophomores, but our sophomore goalkeepers [Liz O’Sullivan and Jennifer Blum] have just had an extraordinary preseason. The amount of work they put in during the off-season has been more than obvious to our attackers who have been shooting on them on a daily basis. So we start in the backfield with that veteran depth.
“Our goalkeepers are doing a great job being our final line of defense. We’re thrilled with what they’re bringing to the table; their communication, their maturity, and just through having their freshman years under their belt getting through the entire season having seen so many shots on goal.
“Where I think our team is ready to continue to show our opponents and our fan base more of the same is in how very excited we are to continue our high-pressure aggressive defense. Our team mentality continues to get stronger every year these kids play together. So not only will Leah [Gallagher] be back there anchoring and being one of those pins to our communication, flanked to her left by Stephanie Peragallo, but now we have an X-factor player back to the lineup [Barbara Sullivan]. It was very obvious she has been missing.
Is it great to have 2013 first-team All-American Barbara Sullivan back after missing almost all of 2014?
“Barbara is back full strength, ready to go. We’ve seen the sophomore year Barbara – that first team All-American caliber play who raises the level of every single set that we run. Her pressure is outstanding and even though it was really hard to have to go an entire full season without her at full-go, we’re seeing that she too grew in that year off. Her communication has amped up, I think her hunger amped up. It only takes missing a season and having to sit from the sidelines when you know what you can do, to amp up that intensity and sense of urgency in what you’re doing. So if it was possible for Barbara to be more intense, we’re actually seeing it first-hand now right in our training sessions that she has. Like I said, she’s become even smarter if that was possible. She is one of the smartest players on the field; she has a high understanding of the IQ, the tempo, the pace. She reads plays really well. She anticipates things. Does Barbara go rogue? Absolutely. Does it work out for her and our team? Nine times out of ten it absolutely does and we’ll take those odds any day of the week.”
How is the midfield shaping up?
“That’s probably the deepest area of our team. We worked hard the past few years on amping up and bringing in players to play in the midfield. We wanted them to really learn from the upperclassmen, and now we finally have upperclassmen outweighing underclassmen on the field in the midfield.
“We’re so deep in the midfield that I think we’re looking at the potential to play a 3-5-3 – three attackers, five midfielders and three defenders. What does that give us? That gives us an enormous amount of speed. It gives us the ability to keep players on the field while they rest behind the restraining lines. We see there being a combination of players that just bring incredible experience. They bring a large amount of ACC experience, not just playing experience, but they understand what we’re headed into this season. They understand how difficult it’s going to be every time we suit up because we’re always going to have one of the hardest schedules in the country. They are the heartbeat of the team because they play both ends of the ball. They help us with our aggressive style defense but they also understand the tempo when we get the ball on offense.
“Fixtures of our midfield have been Stephanie Toy, Brie Custis and Caitlin Gargan. Everyone can expect to see more of the same with them. And then we more returning contributors from last year. Alex Dalton is moving into the midfield position from attack. Katherine Eilers, who has been one of the most exciting surprises on the draw unit, is starting to contribute on the offensive end as well. Then, of course, Casey Pearsall is back, and this year she is going to start the season at 100 percent strength now that she’s fully recovered from a late ACL tear in high school. We’re feeling really excited about that.
“Our other major contributors are lying in that junior class with Hannah Hartman, Michele Phillips and Emma Claire Fontenot, who should show us a lot of strength in our depth and in our numbers. So, I’m really excited about that. Of course we can’t forget Molly Cobb, one of our freshmen coming in playing an incredibly aggressive style. She’s a lot of fun, very athletic, has a high IQ and she’s hungry all over the field. We’re excited to see how this midfield shakes out. We know that we’re prepared. We push ourselves on a daily basis. And now we have a veteran mindset that’s really going to set the tempo for us and really bring home that brand of lacrosse that we want to play – that really fast and aggressive style.”
Moving on to the attack. How is that area coming along?
“We definitely lost some serious firepower in the seniors that we graduated as well as a lot of knowledge, but they left a nice legacy for us and we’ve been seeing that picked up by our seniors all the way down to our freshmen. We’re excited to welcome some mainstays back, Kiera [McMullan], Rachel [Sexton] and Cortney [Fortunato], really I think locking down that low offensive area. Some surprises for this season are Heidi Annaheim, Grace Muller, and Shauna Pugliese – a senior who is a really good on-field leader with outstanding communication. She’s been riddled with injuries over the course of her time here, but she has been healthy lately. She’s been taking care of herself and she has taken advantage of every opportunity when she wasn’t able to be healthy to take care of her shooting and her stick work, so she doesn’t even look like she’s missed a beat. We’re really excited about that depth down there on offense.”
What will make it all work?
“Overall, I think the key ingredient to this is the returning knowledge that we have, the returning physical presence that we’re going to have, the returning mentality of `we’ve been here, we understand the journey ahead, so we’re really focused on one day at a time.’ I’m really excited about the combos that we’ve been seeing out there, the awesome surprises, our freshmen attackers too – they’re right there really getting it. Having to play against our vets in practice every day they’ve been learning quickly. They’ve had a very quick learning curve. Abi Cullinan, Sydney Cardozo, Olivia Mikkelsen to name a few have really shown us some really exciting looks at what even the future holds.
“So we’re feeling really good. We’re healthy, that’ll be a key to success. Any team, when you’re excited about your vets, a key to success is going to be staying healthy and taking care of our bodies, and they’ve been doing a great job of that. We’ve been working on our cohesion and our synergy out there on the field. The way the ball is moving and the amount of trust and belief that’s happening for this 2015 team is just really exciting. “
How do you feel about Friday’s season-opener at Cincinnati?
“Led by our three captains, we’re really excited to see what the team puts out there on Friday against Cincinnati. They will be an incredible opponent – super physical. They’ve been getting better every single year under the leadership and tutelage of Gina Oliver who I have great respect for and has won a couple gold medals at the US level. We know we’re going to see a really smart and sound team defense, with physical presence, and a lot of double-teaming. We’re also very aware of what they return with their senior class. They’re going to be really hungry. We’re excited for that first battle to see how we look against somebody else.”
How does this schedule set up to test and prepare you?
“Playing in the toughest conference in the country, we have to find the right balance with our non-conference schedule as well. We want to play teams that are going to test us and are going to look a little bit different from one to the next, because that’s what the ACC looks like. They’re all very good, but they all have very different strengths and you have to find their weaknesses. You have to work hard once you find them to strike the chord with your strengths, taking advantage of those, but also taking advantage of your opponent’s weaknesses. We feel like we once again put together a nice non-conference schedule here that’s going to keep us tested so that, as we go through the ACC scheduled games that start on March 1 with Duke and go all the way to the Sunday before the ACC tournament. In there we’ve mixed in some very physical teams and some very highly-rated teams with Northwestern being a common opponent that we’ll always have on our schedule. We’re really excited keeping a national footprint being able to go from the East Coast all the way to the West Coast. We make sure that we are seeing the Big Ten – that’s going to rival the ACC for being another strong conference. We’re also getting in here up-and-coming programs with outstanding coaching staffs and we’re getting that strong battle that we know we need so we can prepare for the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament.”