May 19, 2010

Notre Dame's Earl Has Ice in His Veins

by Justin Feil | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Notre Dame midfielder David Earl is widely considered the best player on the team, says Irish head coach Kevin Corrigan, but Maryland's depth at midfield could dictate a move back to the second line in the NCAA quarterfinals Saturday.

David Earl returned to Westminster School in Connecticut to play ice hockey in the Alumni Winter Games Day in early January.

Hockey was the first love of Earl, the junior midfielder who scored a career-high five goals in the Notre Dame lacrosse team’s 8-5 NCAA Division I tournament first-round upset of Princeton on Sunday to advance to Saturday’s quarterfinals against Maryland.

“I played soccer and hockey my whole life,” Earl said. “My family is a huge hockey family. I didn’t start lacrosse until high school, freshman year.

“At my school, you had to play three sports. The lacrosse coach, knowing my brother had just come through, said, why not pick up a stick? I loved the sport just as much as hockey and soccer.”

When Earl won Westminster’s Brian Bryette Award as the school's top athlete, there wasn’t any debate. He had success in everything he played. He was a Western all-star center midfielder for the soccer team, a second-team all-league defenseman in his post-graduate year for the hockey team and an All-America selection in lacrosse.

“He’s such a uniquely gifted athlete,” said Peter Newman, Westminster’s lacrosse coach. “If we didn’t have to, we wouldn’t have ever taken him off the field. You see some of that with Notre Dame. We did our best to try to rest him defensively.

“We had to create new stats for him, like the unassisted clear. We decided to keep that because of David Earl. He could do so much athletically at full speed. We knew we were going to see something special when he was on the field, we just didn’t know what it was going to be.”

Earl stayed an extra year at Westminster, and even after he had committed to play lacrosse at Notre Dame, there were new hockey offers. It was a tough choice which sport to pursue in college.

“I was mostly planning on playing hockey,” Earl said. “I was looking for hockey and lacrosse, and I fell in love with Notre Dame. That pushed me in the lacrosse direction more than hockey.”

The first rule of Project Mayhem: don't ask questions.

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His family has been nothing but supportive, though his dad, Tom, had been an All-American forward at Colgate before playing for the New England Whalers team that won the 1973 World Hockey Association Championship. His brother, Luke, was slated to play both hockey and lacrosse at Yale University, but stayed on the ice to become an All-Ivy League forward and the Bulldogs' 2002 captain. The younger of his two sisters also excelled at hockey for Westminster.

“David was very good,” said Tom, who retired after 30 years coaching hockey, the last 20 at Westminster, when David graduated. “He had a chance to go on and play Division I hockey if he wanted to. He’s a very athletic kid. He has very good hand-eye coordination. Hockey and lacrosse are similar. They both require speed and explosiveness and he has that.

“He had a very good senior year in hockey here. He received a lot of attention. He had committed to Notre Dame and was thrilled to be given the opportunity to go there. He never wavered in that commitment.”

Notre Dame is thankful for that. Coaches followed Earl after seeing him play while recruiting Peter Christman, a Westminster grad who was a senior midfielder for Notre Dame last year. Earl played in 15 games with five points as an Irish freshman, and had 15 points in 16 games as a sophomore.

“Freshman year, I came in and I wasn’t a dominant player,” Earl said. “I found a role I could help the team in. I played in most games. It worked out well.”

Earl has been one source of consistency in this year’s up-and-down season. After Sunday’s win over Princeton, Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan raised eyebrows when he said, “David Earl has been our best player all year.”

Fellow midfielder Zach Brenneman leads the team in goals and assists and was a first team Big East selection. Scott Rodgers is one of the best goalies in the nation. Grant Krebs, a senior midfielder, is second on the team in goals and has four hat tricks. Kevin Ridgway is a lockdown defender on a defense that was ranked seventh in the nation in the regular season.

Earl gets overshadowed by all of them.

“I don’t think anybody except coaches and teammates recognize the value of a guy who gets ground balls, plays good defense and takes good shots,” Corrigan said. “He’s a guy you want in at the end of the game whether you have the ball or they have the ball. We have some other players that are great players, but David has been our most consistent.”

Earl leads the Fighting Irish in only one category, but is among the top three in most every category. Earl is highest in national rankings among Irish players in shooting percentage at 40 percent. He has a third-best 20 goals, sits fourth on the team in points, third on the team in ground balls with 46, and third in caused turnovers with 12. Two of his goals have been game-winners, tied for the team lead.

Earl manufactured those stats despite playing the entire regular season on the second midfield to help bring along sophomore Eric Keppeler and freshman Steve Murphy.

“He played with the first group all fall and half the preseason until we made the decision we wanted to do something else,” Corrigan said.

In the second half of the regular-season finale against Syracuse, Earl moved up to the first midfield.

Explained Corrigan: “I think we got to a point where we got a little stagnant and needed that third guy in the first group.”

For Princeton, the Irish kept sophomore Max Pfeifer on the second line and stacked their first line with experience in Brenneman, Krebs and Earl, who seemed to benefit the most.

“We’ve been running well together,” Earl said. “We feel we present challenges for the defense, figuring out who to pole and how to play us.”

Earl won’t be overlooked by the third-seeded Terrapins on Saturday when the teams meet in Princeton. Last year, Earl equaled the team high with seven shots, but only one of them was on goal as the Irish lost to unseeded Maryland, 7-3. It contrasts mightily with his 5-of-6 shooting at Princeton.

“It’s pretty much all bad memories,” Earl said of last year’s NCAA loss. “Our team played pretty bad. I remember not taking good shots, and not playing the same lacrosse that we’re capable of playing. Coming off a 15-0 season, we played a bad game at the wrong time. It’s tough in the back of your mind.

“Being a competitor, it’s always great to get another chance. But that’s not what we’re thinking about. We’re playing to get to the final four.”

Corrigan and the Irish are still debating how to best use Earl on Saturday. Maryland’s team will bring the deepest midfield group that Notre Dame has seen this year. Notre Dame has to match the Terrapins energy and effort if they are to win. If the Irish move Earl back to the second line to balance their lines, it will allow Maryland to focus more on him.

“That’s part of the trade-off,” Corrigan said. “We have to decide that going into the game.”

It won’t matter to Earl where he plays. He isn’t going into the quarterfinals expecting to score another five goals, though he couldn’t have asked for a better time for a career high.

“Coming off the field knowing you were a big part of helping your team being successful,” Earl said. “There’s nothing better than that feeling.”

Earl got that same feeling on that alumni day at Westminster in January, when he showed he can still handle a hockey stick. The current Westminster first varsity boys' ice hockey team had momentum after three straight goals before Earl’s one-timer gave the alumni team an insurance goal in a 6-4 win.

Then, just as he had done three years earlier, he left hockey behind and headed to South Bend, this time as the best player on a Notre Dame lacrosse team going for a berth in the final four.


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