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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame starts quest to defend ACC tourney title

After wrapping up its first Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title, No. 1 Notre Dame will look to repeat as ACC tournament champions this weekend when it opens against No. 6 Duke on Friday night in the semifinals.

The Irish (9-1, 4-0 ACC), winners of six straight, and Blue Devils (10-4, 1-3 ACC) met fewer than three weeks ago, with Notre Dame rolling to a 15-10 victory in Durham, North Carolina. That game saw the Irish lead for all 60 minutes, sparked by hat tricks from sophomore midfielder Sergio Perkovic and the starting attack of freshman Mikey Wynne, junior Matt Kavanagh and senior Conor Doyle. That kind of offensive depth will be key moving forward for Notre Dame, head coach Kevin Corrigan said.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who can score,” Corrigan said. “More importantly, a lot of guys that can score and nobody that cares if they do. We’re a very opportunistic team, and we do a great job taking advantage of what people are giving up, because with a team like ours you can’t take away everything.”

Junior attack Matt Kavanaugh protects the ball from a North  Carolina defender. Kavanaugh had four goals in the Irish win.
Junior attack Matt Kavanaugh protects the ball from a North Carolina defender. Kavanaugh had four goals in the Irish win.
Junior attack Matt Kavanagh protects the ball from a North Carolina defender. Kavanagh had four goals in the Irish win.

Each of those four — Wynne, Kavanagh, Doyle and Perkovic — have eclipsed the 20-goal mark this season, making it hard for defenses to focus in on any one player. All four are also crucial components of Notre Dame’s man-up offense, which ranks second in the country at 62.1 percent.

Alternatively, the Irish man-down defense ranks fifth to last in all of Division I lacrosse at a meager 51.9 percent. Corrigan chalks up his team’s struggles in that area to youth.

“It’s an area where we have to get better, no doubt about it,” Corrigan said. “Anytime you’ve got a young group in the man-down situation. … It takes a lot of understanding, communication and cooperation, and younger groups just tend to be a little behind in that.”

That man-down group will have a tough task ahead of it trying to quiet a Duke offense that scores at the fifth highest clip in the nation, averaging 14.71 goals per game. The Blue Devils are led by junior midfielder Myles Jones, who has racked up 35 goals and 65 points, both tops among all midfielders nationally. Freshman attack Justin Guterding (41 goals, 56 points) and junior midfielder Deemer Class (32 goals, 47 points) form a strong supporting cast. Corrigan said his familiarity with Duke’s players and style of play was an immense help during game planning.

“With a shorter week of preparation … and the end of the year academically and everything else, it’s nice to know that our preparation is a little bit easier,” Corrigan said. “It’s an adjustment off of what we were trying to do the first time we played them, which was just a few weeks ago.”

The Irish do not, however, have much familiarity with sophomore midfielder Kyle Rowe, who played sparingly against Notre Dame but has had success recently as the Blue Devils’ primary option for faceoffs. Rowe has won 84 percent of his draws over the last two games, supplanting his older brother senior Jack Rowe, who took 23 of 29 draws the last time these two teams met.

The Irish will counter with a platoon of their own, trotting out sophomore faceoff specialist P.J. Finley (82 for 151, 54.3 percent) while spelling him with freshman John Travisano, Jr. (14 for 25, 56 percent) and senior Nick Ossello (34 for 81, 42 percent).

“We’ll continue to mix it up,” Corrigan said. “I think that’s part of making sure that we are effective in that area of the game.”

Senior attack Conor Doyle looks to pass in a 15-14 win against North Carolina on Sunday. Doyle had three goals in the victory.
Senior attack Conor Doyle looks to pass in a 15-14 win against North Carolina on Saturday. Doyle had three goals in the victory.

No matter who is taking faceoffs for Notre Dame, it will be important to keep the momentum they currently have going into the NCAA tournament, Corrigan said. That is what worked last year, when the squad went from being a bubble team to ripping off six straight victories and making it to the NCAA final before losing to Duke, 11-9.

“The stakes aren’t quite what they were last year, but we don’t want to take any steps backward at this point,” Corrigan said.

Notre Dame and Duke will clash tonight at 5:30 p.m. in the ACC tournament semifinals at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. The winner will play in the championship Sunday at 1 p.m. against either Syracuse or North Carolina.