Steady Climb Leads to Notre Dame's Dominance
Cortney Fortunato turned heads when she committed to Notre Dame over more consistent national title contenders, but her faith in the Fighting Irish’s long-term potential is starting to show.
“Every year we’ve kind of been building on what we were coming off the year before,” said Fortunato, a junior attacker. “This is the first year we really have that from top to bottom.”
The No. 5 Fighting Irish have dismantled their first five opponents by a combined score of 80-24. The first-half advantage is a staggering 44-9. Their only game that was decided by fewer than 10 goals was when they stopped No. 13 Stanford,13-9, on the strength of an 8-0 run midway through the second half, avenging two straight losses to the Cardinal.
Notre Dame’s 5-0 start is its best since a record-tying 10-0 start in 2013 when this year’s seniors were freshmen.
“You have to have patience in the process, and this program has had patience,” said Notre Dame head coach Christine Halfpenny. “It has absolutely been a steadily climbing program that has made significant increases in performance each year. Everybody would like overnight success, especially this generation of kids, but the reality is since the beginning of time, it’s all about the process. It does take time. Where we are right now speaks to every team that I’ve coached and their willingness to move this program forward.”
Fortunato would have loved to have seen more team success after her arrival as the nation’s most prized recruit. Her freshman year, the Fighting Irish faded down the stretch to finish 10-9 in their first year in the ACC. Last year, Notre Dame put together an encouraging mid-season flurry and finished 11-9 after a 3-4 start.
“We started pretty poorly last year,” Fortunato said. “Once we came together in the middle of the season and turned it around and had a good stretch, coming back in the fall and seeing mostly juniors and seniors and some sophomores that made a big impact last year and a group of really talented freshmen come in and not losing too much from last year, I think the expectation was there’s no excuse that we shouldn’t have an even better season than last year and expand on that run.”
Notre Dame is loaded with experience, and Halfpenny says that everything that the Fighting Irish have gone through has only helped spark this year’s start. They’ve stormed out of the starting blocks with strong play at both ends and they’re looking ultimately for a second-ever trip to a final four and the chance to play for the program’s first national title.
“You have to learn what it takes to get to where we are now,” Halfpenny said. “By no stretch or means are we overthinking where we are now or celebrating where we are. We’re very level-headed. Everything is happening because the girls are making it happen. Nothing is luck at this point. They’re very focused on the play, the moment and taking advantage and embracing this 2016 team.”
On offense, Fortunato leads five players already in double-digit points. They are second in the country in assists per game and third overall in scoring, and those numbers have helped push the win total up in a dominant opening month.
Senior Stephanie Toy is one of countless offensive options for Notre Dame. The Irish have assists on 50 of their 80 goals through the first five games, and 15 players already have at least one point. (Matt Cashore)
The other end can’t be overlooked. Tewaaraton Award candidate Barbara Sullivan is as steady as ever at the defensive end and already tied a team record with eight caused turnovers in a game. She aids U.S. U19 goalie Samantha Giacolone, a freshman who sits third in the country in goals allowed per game and sixth in save percentage.
“It helps her to have a really good defense,” Fortunato said. “It also helps our defense to know if you have a let-up, or you can be a little more aggressive and able to make a mistake here and there knowing that you have a really solid goalkeeper behind you that’s going to come up with those stops. They’ve only helped each other. It’s really exciting on the other end to watch.”
The midfield can run waves of talented players who are helping at both ends. Freshman Jenn Casadonte, for example, comes off the sideline, but has turned the ball over only once while handling it plenty, and she’s scored on five of her six shots.
“We’re probably 18 deep and they could probably start almost anywhere in the country,” Halfpennny said. “We’ll probably be 19-20 deep as these kids continue to develop.”
With eight of the nine players who scored 20 or more points last year back, it’s no wonder that Notre Dame’s offense is clicking. The Fighting Irish are seeing a motion offense that they’ve been working at for years finally start to look like they’d imagined it. It allows creativity, but has structure to it, and it’s reliant on experienced players like Notre Dame has.
“Everyone that’s on the offense this year is just a little more confident and more skilled and the chemistry, most of us have been playing together for three years,” Fortunato said. “We know each other’s tendencies better and we’re clicking more. Another thing is we worked a lot on off-ball movement in the fall. That’s a huge new piece of our game.”
Rachel Sexton, Heidi Annaheim and freshman Nikki Ortega are the top scoring benefactors of the offense. Casey Pearsall is just behind Fortunato’s 10 assists with eight of her own and Annaheim has seven assists. The Fighting Irish have been preaching working for great, not just good shots. On one possession in their 21-2 win over California on Sunday, four different players passed up good looks to get the highest percentage shot – and it resulted in a wide-open goal that had the sideline roaring its approval.
“I love it,” Fortunato said. “I think it’s been awesome so far. It’s great to see. I wish we could have been this good on offense the past few years, but I’m really happy to see it now.”
Notre Dame’s coaching staff has been seeing plays like that every day in practice, and now opposing teams are seeing it more and more. It spells trouble for opposing teams that try to focus only on shutting down Fortunato.
“I think Cortney has changed so much,” Halfpenny said. “She is really coming into her own. She’s embracing a quiet leadership role. She’s not a big talker. Her demeanor has been just wonderful. Her disposition, smiling a lot, enjoying her teammates’ success. She’s through the roof about her teammates’ success. The beauty of it is I don’t know if she’s fully aware that the way she plays, the way she trains, the way she wants to win, that has rubbed off on our team and that’s the reason we are where we are now. It’s a killer combination – Cortney, Barbara, Sam Giacalone with all these other superstars around them. Cortney has done so much.
“Find me another attacker in the country that has not only 29 points on 54 percent shooting percentage, but goes 4-for-6 from the line and does not line up on the draw control circle and still has eight ground balls and 13 caused turnovers. I’m pretty wowed by some of the other attackers in our conference, but Cortney does it quiet. She might be wowing in some ways, but I certainly don’t consider Cortney a flashy player.”
“I think I definitely had a leadership role in the past two years on offense,” said Fortunato, “but now I’m trying to be that leader on offense and making sure that everybody is on the same page and knowing what we’re doing and giving everyone the confidence they need to perform like we’ve been performing.”
It’s hard to imagine it going much better to start, but Notre Dame expects tough challenges ahead in a schedule that figures to be among the toughest in the country by the end of the year. The Fighting Irish journey to No. 11 Louisville on Saturday with a chance to take on a team that beat them last year.
The Fighting Irish won’t be complacent after a terrific first month. They have too much experience to fall into that trap, and if they start to, they have players like Cortney Fortunato to bring them back to earth and keep them focused on the ultimate goal.
“It’s encouraging going forward, but it’s certainly not that we can sit back and relax now,” Fortunato said. “It’s nice to know we do have that potential, but we know we have to keep performing at a high level and only improve from here.”
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