Nike/LM NCAA Preview: No. 7 Notre Dame (Women)
Returning a majority of its starting lineup with veteran leadership from Tewaaraton finalist Barbara Sullivan, Notre Dame has one of the best teams in its program history to vie for an NCAA championship.
Can the Irish make it happen with a deep roster, including offensive standout Cortney Fortunato and U.S. silver medalist goalie Samantha Giacolone?
Notre Dame at a Glance
2015 Record: 11-9
3 Big Things
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
"Tough defense" isn't as easily quantified as one might think. The Irish have hovered around nine to 10 goals allowed per game for much of the past five years. But you have to remember that they have played in two tough leagues — the ACC the past two seasons and the Big East that had Syracuse, Loyola and Georgetown before that. But they've become one of the best teams in the country at separating opponents from the ball.
1. Notre Dame is deep — like, Pacific Ocean deep.
A school-record nine players had 20 or more points in 2015. Eight of those players are back, and that doesn't include returning Tewaaraton finalist in Barbara Sullivan, who plies her trade on the other end of the field. The Irish went ahead and added one of the top recruiting classes in the country, which means that they'll be able to run deep at every position. Junior All-American Cortney Fortunato, who led Notre Dame with 56 goals and 20 assists last spring, has carried the helm of being the top player in her class since well before she arrived on campus. This team is built to spread things around rather than funnel them down to the star for one-on-one looks.
"The management of the players and the chemistry is a big thing we'll have to work with," coach Christine Halfpenny said. "There are more 'starters' on our roster than there are positions on the field, so that means we're going to have players ready when we call on them."
2. Focus solely on Fortunato at your peril.
Notre Dame has been working hard on a motion-style offense in recent seasons, and this group looks poised to deploy it to maximum effect in 2016. That'll be a bear for opposing defenses, as several players are capable of finishing a good look when it comes their way.
"You can shut down one of us, but you can't shut down all of us," said Halfpenny, who has seen teams throw the kitchen sink at Fortunato. "We're excited about our unpredictability on offense. There's no ego there. We've got one goal, and that's to put the ball in the back of the net. We don't care how it gets there."
3. Oddly enough, the defense needs to step up.
Yes, Notre Dame has a Tewaaraton finalist returning in Barbara Sullivan. Yes, the Irish have two other returning starters and the unique advantage of a backup goalie that started 20 games last year. But Notre Dame's defense is probably its biggest question mark going into the season. One of the few departed players from last year was Leah Gallagher, who started every game and was the key communicator on the back end for Notre Dame. Finding that defensive quarterback to send slides and keep the whole crew on point is going to be a key, particularly in the offense-rich ACC.
* returning starters
A Tewaaraton finalist in 2015 and the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year, Sullivan has another shot at leading the Irish as a rare three-time captain — an honor that only Kathryn Lam (2000-02) has had previously. As a senior, Sullivan led the team with 85 draw controls and 36 caused turnovers in addition to 42 ground balls and a pair of assists. Any team craves veteran leadership. A fifth-year senior and two-time first-team All-American is about as good as one could hope for.
Among a recruiting class considered one of the best in the country, Giacolone will have an immediate impact. She's likely to supplant Liz O'Sullivan as Notre Dame's starting goalie. After a standout career at New York's Eastport South Manor, where she won 88 games and made more than 1,000 saves, Giacolone was a member of the silver-medal winning U.S. U19 team.
One of a strong corps of junior midfielders for Notre Dame, Eilers did a bit of everything last spring and is only looking better coming off a strong fall. "She has a lot of potential to shine," Halfpenny said. "She's everything you want in a player — focused, athletic and does things the right way." Eilers had five goals and two assists and was strong on the defensive end.
Biggest Question Mark
Surviving the Schedule
Notre Dame has its sights set on Blacksburg, Va., and Chester, Pa., where the ACC and NCAA finals take place, respectively. To get to either is going to be tough, and Notre Dame has spared no effort in making sure they'll be ready for both when the time comes. Besides the brutal ACC schedule, the Irish face six teams that made it to last year's NCAA tournament, taking on Jacksonville and Stanford before Valentine's Day, with Princeton, Northwestern, USC and Ohio State sprinkled throughout the rest of the regular season.
Freshman goalie Samantha Giacolone is coming off a silver medal performance with Team USA in the U19 world championship that will help her make an immediate impact for the Irish. (John Strohsacker)
What rival coaches say about the Fighting Irish
"Not sure if I trust their defense and goalie against the Marylands and Carolinas of the world, but should be able to compete with anyone."
"Incredibly talented, very athletic, and another year of experience under their belt for this group. Weaknesses: Inconsistency and need to get it done when it counts."
"No. 3 incoming class including Nikki Ortega. Barb Sullivan returns. Strong senior class. Weakness: Consistency, establishing themselves early on in the season."
"Needs to maximize their talent. On paper, one of the best teams out there. We'll see how that translates to success in the season."
"Fifth-year senior Barb Sullivan will anchor the defense. We saw glimpses of what Notre Dame is capable of last season but injuries really got in the way. Now, the team returns nearly everybody and is ready to take the next step in 2016."
"Returning defender of the year and Tewaaraton candidate Barb Sullivan, as well as second team All-American defender Alex Dalton, first team All-American attacker Cortney Fortunato and third team All-American defender Casey Pearsall. Fortunato should find her footing and leadership as a junior, but Sullivan already has it entering her fifth season, understanding the expectations and opportunities of playing Division I lacrosse."
"Freakin' bucket load of talent. They should have an interesting season."
"They have a lot back. Sullivan and Fortunato are two of the best and make them dangerous."
"It's always a battle game against Notre Dame. I know they have [Cortney] Fortunato on their offensive end, who's a big scoring threat. We always recruit against them a lot, so I know they have some great players. I think they have a pretty solid team returning, especially with Barb Sullivan taking the draw, and they have some good leaders returning."
"I heard they had a great fall. They return some All-Americans, and they've got some All-Americans who weren't on the teams. With them, it's just finding chemistry and people finding their roles and doing them well. Every year they get I think three of the top 10 recruits in the country. They have a new freshman goalie, they have Barb [Sullivan] on defense, who is the ultimate help defender and also on-ball defender who is pretty aggressive, which you normally don't get – it's usually one or the other. They have Cortney Fortunato, who creates matchup problems. They've got Nikki Ortega coming in as a high school All-American, and then you've got the rest of the returners who are solid and well-skilled. They will continue to have great talent. It's just a matter of putting it together. On paper they look pretty awesome."
U.S. U19 team members in Notre Dame's freshman class. Only one freshman projects as a starter, and it's not certain that goalie Samantha Giacalone will hold off incumbent Liz O'Sullivan. But youth will be served in a big way with one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Nikki Ortega will see plenty of time on attack fter earning All-World honors at the U19 world championship in Scotland, and Hannah Proctor will bolster the veteran Irish defensive unit after starting eight of nine games for Team USA.
* @ Blacksburg, Va.
Feb. 13 Stanford
The Irish and Stanford have built themselves a bit of a Midwest-West rivalry, and both bring high expectations for 2016 into their Valentine's Day eve game. The Cardinal ended Notre Dame's season in the first round of the NCAA tournament when this year's seniors were freshmen. Stanford has won two regular season encounters since. Either team could bolster its postseason hopes with a non-conference win here.
Serious NCAA Championship Aspirations
While Halfpenny opted to play coy by saying that every game is circled on the Notre Dame schedule this spring, this may be the best team the Irish have ever put on the field. They have a brutal schedule, and finding the right mix for so many talented players is a challenge. But few teams will be able to keep pace with Notre Dame if the Irish can put it all together.
Notre Dame team has all the ingredients for a big breakthrough. The Irish have a ton of returning players seasoned by the toughest conference in the country, depth for days and a cadre of youngsters with talent buying into the system. If they can stay healthy and grow through as tough of a schedule as you can put together, there's no reason to doubt they'll be as tough an out in May as Maryland, North Carolina or any other preseason favorite.
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