Corrigan has built Notre Dame into legitimate lacrosse power

Fighting Irish have crashed upper echelon by recruiting hard-nosed players and relying on strong defensive system

February 25, 2011|By Mike Preston

University of Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan doesn't reflect much on his 23 years at the school, but there are some things he can't forget.

Upon arrival, Notre Dame had no paid assistants and scholarships. The Fighting Irish didn't have any lacrosse facilities, and shared a locker room with four other teams.

But now, they are close to becoming an elite team. In the latest Baltimore Sun poll, the Fighting Irish are ranked No. 4 behind Syracuse, Virginia and Maryland.

And they are closing.

"Syracuse and the Atlantic Coast Conference teams have separated themselves at the top from the competition," said Paul Carcaterra, lacrosse analyst from ESPN. "There are good teams in position to balance out the power from the No. 5 to No. 15 positions.

"By the end of the year, Notre Dame might be at or near the top again. They have a great defensive system in place, and the recruiting is going well. If they can get the offense together, and some of those guys to emerge, they'll be closing the gap as far as moving into the elite division."

Notre Dame (1-0) has never gotten this kind of respect before. Despite reaching the Final Four in 2001, and consistently being ranked in the top 10 for most of the last decade, there were always questions about the Fighting Irish, especially their strength of schedule.

Even last year, there was debate about whether Notre Dame should be in the 16-team Division I playoff field because of a 7-6 regular-season record.

But in the tournament, the Fighting Irish beat Princeton, and upset both Maryland and Cornell before losing, 6-5, to Duke in overtime of the championship game.

They have arrived.

Now, some teams that didn't want to play the Irish in the past want them on the schedule. Notre Dame opened the season last week with a 12-7 win against Duke, and will finish the 2011 regular season with games at Syracuse and Virginia.

"In the past, some teams thought that we could beat them, but there was not much credit for beating us," said Corrigan. "In fact, though, there were teams like Loyola and Maryland that got in the tournament on the strength of beating us.

"We opened with Duke and have North Carolina and Syracuse at the end, and in between, we're playing four or five nationally ranked teams. But even before this season, we were 14-3 and 15-1 before we went 7-6. It's not like we didn't experience success earlier."

Notre Dame's rise to the top parallels the increased parity in college lacrosse. Despite having the academic reputation of Ivy League schools and one of the most storied traditions in all of college sports, Norte Dame still had troubled luring blue chip recruits from lacrosse hotbeds in New York and Maryland.

But Corrigan hasn't always targeted the hotshots. Watch Note Dame play, and you see midfielders who are relentless in hustling and tracking down groundballs.

Defensively, Notre Dame is starting to earn the same reputation as some of Bill Tierney's Princeton teams in the 1990s due to work ethic and positioning.

And Notre Dame keeps finding these great goalkeepers. One year it is Joe Kemp, and the next it's Scott Rodgers. Now the Fighting Irish might have another one in John Kemp, Joe's little brother.

"They are starting to get some of those top recruits because everything is in place now," Carcaterra said. "They have the lacrosse-only facility. They've got the reputation and the tradition. More importantly, they have their principles on how to build. They go after guys, but they're not in the top five recruiting classes every year. They recruit a certain type of player."

Corrigan's approach will never change.

"Every year, the goal remains the same and that's to win," said Corrigan. "Our goal is to work hard every day, get better every time out. We want to play smart and hard, put ourselves in position in the fourth quarter to make enough plays to win."

The Fighting Irish will make another strong run in the post season. They've got three good defensemen in Sam Barnes, Kevin Ridgway and Kevin Randall. Kemp played well against Duke in the opener, recording 14 saves.

Middies Zach Brenneman and David Earl should be able to carry the offense long enough until the entire group becomes a more cohesive unit. In the early part of the season, look for the defense to carry Notre Dame.

By the end, Corrigan's name will be circulated around college lacrosse for job openings just as it has been for the past three or four years.

"I don't know how that stuff gets started," said Corrigan. "There are very few situations better for me and my family. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about is the happiness of your family."

And the Notre Dame lacrosse family.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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