Senior attackman David Ulrich did not know a thing about Notre Dame lacrosse until six years ago, after the Irish had won their first NCAA tournament game in school history.
Ulrich, a Boys' Latin sophomore at the time, later would pay Notre Dame a recruiting visit. Before he met academic advisers and spent time with other students and got a taste of the rich sports tradition in South Bend, Ind., Ulrich sensed a natural fit with an up-and-coming coach who was building something special.
His decision to join coach Kevin Corrigan has paid off handsomely. Ulrich will play in his first final four tomorrow, as the Irish try to knock off defending national champion Syracuse in the semifinals at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"I've been playing lacrosse for my entire life, and [Corrigan] has made me realize there was a lot I didn't know about this game," Ulrich said. "I've really enjoyed him as a coach. He definitely built this program from basically nothing."
A new tradition is evolving at Notre Dame, with Corrigan leading the way. Notre Dame's 13-9 victory over Johns Hopkins in the NCAA quarterfinals Sunday was a high-water mark for the Irish, who never before had advanced beyond that round. It also was a product of 13 years of Corrigan's work.
Sporting a 14-1 record, best in its 20-year lacrosse history, Notre Dame has lost only two games since dropping a 12-2 decision to Loyola on March 18, 2000. The Irish returned the favor by beating Loyola in the first round of last year's NCAAs.
If anyone needed more proof that Notre Dame was not an overrated Midwest curiosity, it came in mid-March, when the Irish won back-to-back road games against Virginia and Loyola, and earned a No. 2 national ranking as a result.
"That week sort of cemented our confidence. It let people know that we were no fluke," said Corrigan, the son of former Notre Dame athletic director and retired Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Gene Corrigan. The elder Corrigan, a Baltimore native, graduated from Loyola High and coached three sports at St. Paul's School.
At Notre Dame, the signs of progress keep coming.
Starting next year, scholarships will be introduced to the lacrosse program, and the Irish will be fully funded by the 2004-05 school year. The travel budget has expanded to the point where a 10-day road trip is not unusual. That's a far cry from the days when Corrigan left Division III Randolph-Macon to come to Notre Dame in 1988.
Back then, the Irish were in the Great Lakes League and had been playing the majority of their games against Division III opponents. Corrigan had no full-time assistant coaches, and the team took a bus to road games. Recruiting successfully in hotbeds like Baltimore was inconceivable.
The growing pains are vivid in Corrigan's mind.
"I was recruiting graduate assistants to work in the security booth at our home games. We didn't fly at all," said Corrigan, 42. "We rode a bus everywhere. One of the players named [the bus] the Iron Lung. But, at every stage where I might have been attracted to [another coaching job], the commitment [to lacrosse] kept going up here."
The administration eventually provided funding to pay for two full-time assistants. The travel budget and the schedule bulked up. By the mid-'90s, Notre Dame was winning consistently with a Division I schedule and was becoming the class of the Midwest. Under Corrigan, Notre Dame has played in 10 NCAA tournaments and experienced one losing season.
Breaking into Baltimore on the recruiting trail was another turning point. Persuading attackmen Tom Glatzel and the Ulrich twins - David and Todd - to head west in 1997 was a major coup. Glatzel and David Ulrich are the heart of Notre Dame's attack as the team's top scorers.
"We were getting good players, mostly from Connecticut, New Jersey, Long Island. Baltimore was a tough nut to crack," Corrigan said. "It was tough to get Baltimore kids to even come out for a visit. If you go to Gilman, you're told early on to go to an Ivy League school."
Corrigan also has dug up some unlikely gems, such as fifth-year senior goalie Kirk Howell, from Nashville, Tenn., of all places. Howell recorded 17 saves Sunday in an intimidating show against Hopkins.
"You're doing your homework when you pull that off and find somebody like that," Maryland coach Dick Edell said. "To be in a place like South Bend, where there's not a whole lot of high school lacrosse - or any lacrosse - and have that kind of success, is amazing. Kevin is a class act, and his teams are fundamentally sound."
Howell agrees. He loves Corrigan's emotional in-your-face style. He said Corrigan does not tolerate a lack of effort, and has tossed players from practice to emphasize that point. And he never leaves his team unprepared."[Corrigan] doesn't exclude anybody. He won't lie to you. He has no other agenda. He doesn't mince words. He's intense," Howell said. "He's got to be one of the best at what he does."