Notre Dame's Zach Brenneman, left, is congratulated… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
Scott Rodgers' day in the Notre Dame cage started with a fusillade of Cornell shots, a disconcerting number of Irish turnovers and a 1-0 deficit.
But after the massive, 6-foot-4, 254-pound goalkeeper let in a quick goal, he slammed the door shut and turned the game's momentum in a major way.
By the time the NCAA Division I lacrosse semifinal was over, Rodgers had ushered the Irish to their first-ever national championship game on 16 saves and a 12-7 victory over Cornell on Saturday before an announced crowd of 44,389 at M&T Bank Stadium.
In the final chapter of an improbable success story — Notre Dame was only 7-6 in the regular season — the Irish appear to be on a historic mission. If they can beat the winner of Saturday's second semifinal between No. 1 Virginia and No. 5 Duke, they will become the first non-East Coast team to win a lacrosse national championship, breaking the East's traditional hold on a sport that has deep roots in the East.
As it is, Notre Dame became the tournament's first unseeded team to reach the final since UMass in 2006.
"I feel like we have been knocking on this door," Irish coach Kevin Corrigan said. "I am excited that we are in the championship game. I am really hoping, if we can win a championship, I can stop getting questions about lacrosse outside the traditional areas. The game has been growing. There have been a number of teams, ours included, that have played very, very well in the NCAA tournament."
Notre Dame (10-6) advanced to Monday's 5:30 p.m. final because it was able to deflect Cornell's early charge — the Big Red had 12 shots in the first quarter — and buy time until its offense found its rhythm.
Rodgers, a senior, stopped eight shots in the opening period after giving up a quick goal to Roy Lang. Six Notre Dame turnovers kept him under constant attack early.
"I thought it was going to be a long day when they first scored," Rodgers said of that inauspicious start.
But that changed late in the period. Notre Dame pounded home three goals in the final three minutes. Sean Rogers and Neal Hicks gave the Irish a 2-1 lead, and then, with six seconds left, the momentum turned for good. Midfielder Adam Felicetti split two Cornell defenders charging the goal, stumbled, was hit by a third — and still got off a shot that found the net. It was his first goal of the season.
When Zach Brenneman extended the lead to 4-1 with a goal in the first minute of the second period, Cornell (12-6) was feeling the heat.
"Coming in here against Rodgers, we didn't want to be overanalyzing his technique or his size," said Big Red coach Jeff Tambroni. "We just wanted our guys to shoot and shoot confidently when they had the opportunity because of our success in the past few weeks [against top-level goalies].
"To his credit, he really played well, but I just know that when you take nine shots on cage and only have one goal, you're not going to come out feeling all that good about yourself."
Rodgers and Notre Dame's second-ranked national scoring defense silenced Cornell's top two guns, Ryan Hurley and Rob Pannell. Hounded by defenseman Kevin Ridgway, Hurley was held without a goal until he scored twice in the final six minutes. Pannell, who led the nation this season in points per game with 4.59, was limited to a pair of assists.
"Scott Rodgers did a great job of making saves," Pannell said. "We were shooting at places that we thought were going to go in. Credit him for doing a great job."
Cornell aimed high early, following its scouting report, and then tried low. The Big Red launched 40 shots in all, 23 on goal.
"After stopping a couple shots, I felt I was in their heads a little," Rodgers said.
Said Tambroni of the growing frustration: "We started second guessing and probably squeezing our sticks a little more than we have in the past."
Notre Dame had no such issues. Hicks, a senior attackman, scored four goals on seven shots and Brenneman, a junior midfielder, scored three on six shots.
"We've heard a lot of talk that Notre Dame's attack is a little soft, and I've been trying to tell the guys, 'Let's go out there and prove to everybody that we can play, that we're good players.'"
One more win and there can be no dissenters.