If you believe Kevin Ridgway, the presence of the Notre Dame men's lacrosse team in the final four for the first time since 2001 shouldn't be a surprise. According to Ridgway, it's expected.
"We've always looked for this goal," said Ridgway, a Kensington native who is a junior defenseman for the Fighting Irish. "We've expected to be in the final four the last couple of years. We were close two years ago [when the team lost, 11-9, to eventual champion Syracuse in the quarterfinals]. Last year [when the team completed a 15-0 regular season but lost, 7-5, to unseeded Maryland in the first round], we didn't really show up for the tournament. This year, we kind of saw an opportunity. I wouldn't say we're the new kids on the block, but it's certainly nice to have an opportunity to play in the final four."
With traditional powers Virginia, Duke and Cornell filling three of the four spots in the NCAA tournament semifinals, the appearance of Notre Dame is somewhat akin to the long-lost cousin showing up unannounced at Thanksgiving dinner.
A 7-5 victory over No. 3 seed Maryland in the quarterfinals Saturday cemented the Fighting Irish's place in history as just the ninth unseeded team, and first since Delaware in 2007, to advance to the national semifinals.
Notre Dame (9-6) is a significant underdog to No. 7 seed Cornell (12-5) in the first semifinal at 4 p.m. Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium. And if the Fighting Irish get past the Big Red, a meeting Monday with either No. 1 Virginia or No. 5 Duke awaits.
But Notre Dame senior midfielder Grant Krebs said being overlooked isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"To be honest, it's kind of nice being the underdog," the Annapolis native and St.Mary's graduate said. "Last year, people were questioning our strength of schedule, and we weren't quite right there. We were playing like everybody expected us to win. But playing this year as the underdog in the tournament, it's kind of nice. You go in there, and I don't know if teams kind of downplay us or not, but it's nice being the underdog. The Cinderella story is pretty cool to play."
That the Fighting Irish have reached this stage is quite a tale. The team opened the season with three consecutive wins, including triumphs over then-No. 1 Duke and then-No. 10 Loyola.
But Notre Dame proceeded to lose six of its next 10 games, including puzzling setbacks to Rutgers, Fairfield and Villanova. Coach Kevin Corrigan said any blame for the team's regular-season struggles should be directed at him.
"Coaches can't win and lose games, but I think coaches can put players in positions to win and lose games, and if they do that effectively, they give their team the best chance to win and lose," he said. "I wasn't doing that very well with our team early in the year. I have to accept the responsibility for that because I was not putting us in the best position to give us the most success we were capable of having."
Despite a 7-6 record, the Fighting Irish earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and silenced the critics by upsetting No. 6 seed Princeton, 8-5, in the first round. And then came the quarterfinal shocker against Maryland, which played a role in the school's parting ways with coach Dave Cottle.
Given the opportunity to gloat, Ridgway didn't take the bait.
"We're not out to prove anything to anybody," he said. "The people we really focus on are the 50 guys in our huddle. So we weren't really out to silence anybody or prove anything to anyone except for ourselves."
Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni said one point he's emphasizing to his players this week is getting them to forget about Notre Dame's regular-season record.
"This is a team that came off of an impressive win against Princeton — a team that we had just lost to the week prior — and an extremely impressive win against Maryland, who was playing down the stretch as good as any team in the country," Tambroni said. "It's not hard to put a pretty agreeable argument in front of our guys about the strength of this Notre Dame team, and I think it has very little to do with their games against Rutgers or teams that they lost to in the middle of the season. I think it has everything to do with the way they're playing right now."
But history has been unkind to unseeded teams in the final four. Only four teams have advanced to the finals, and neither Cornell in 1988, Towson in 1991, Maryland in 1997 nor Massachusetts in 2006 walked away with the NCAA crown.
"Obviously, we're not Virginia, Syracuse or Hopkins, but we have the talent, and we're just excited to be there," Krebs said. "It's a dream come true, and it's something that maybe a month ago, we didn't even think we were going to get into the tournament. But we're given the opportunity to play, and we just really elevated our game and began playing like we should have been playing all year."