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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame still in pursuit of elusive national title

There’s no denying how impressive the Irish have been in recent history. But despite the plethora of accolades and high rankings, No. 7 Notre Dame is still chasing the one trophy it has yet to hoist — the NCAA National Championship.

In four of the last six seasons, the Irish have made it to the coveted Championship Weekend. The veterans on this year’s squad have been close to reaching the promised land in the last two seasons. Notre Dame appeared in the NCAA finals in 2014 against Duke and the semifinals against the eventual NCAA champions, Denver, last season.

The goal heading into this season was no different than the one the Irish had last season or the season before that, and it started off on the right foot as Inside Lacrosse named the Irish the nation’s best team in the preseason.

The favorites to win the ACC, Notre Dame returned three first-team All-Americans in junior midfielder Sergio Perkovic, senior defenseman Matt Landis and senior attack Matt Kavanagh. The team also returned a slew of promising young players, including sophomore attack Mikey Wynne and junior midfielder P.J. Finley.

Notre Dame sophomore attack Mikey Wynne celebrates after scoring a goal in ND’s 8-7 overtime win over Virginia on March 19.
Notre Dame sophomore attack Mikey Wynne celebrates after scoring a goal in ND’s 8-7 overtime win over Virginia on March 19.
Notre Dame sophomore attack Mikey Wynne celebrates after scoring a goal in ND’s 8-7 overtime win over Virginia on March 19.

Behind the myriad of talent on its roster, Notre Dame started the season off 4-0 before facing off in a rematch of last season’s NCAA semifinal against Denver at home. Despite scoring four goals in 43 seconds in the fourth quarter to take the lead against the defending champions, the visiting Pioneers managed to push the game into overtime with a late goal. With two minutes left in the extra period, Denver converted the only shot attempted in overtime to walk away with the win.

Despite the loss, Finley’s most memorable moment of the season came from that contest.

“Ironically enough, my favorite moment from the season comes from our loss to Denver at home,” Finley said. “We scored four goals in 43 seconds at the end of the fourth quarter to take a late lead — I believe our first of the game. Though we lost the game, I think that minute or so shows what kind of team we are: relentless competitors, never backing down from the moment.”

Following the loss, the Irish went on to win five straight games, including overtime wins against Virginia and Marquette and their first ever win at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse. The successful stretch elevated the Irish back to its preseason number one ranking.

But their time atop the rankings was short lived.

The Irish hosted North Carolina in the ACC regular season finale, and it looked as if the squad was ready to clinch its second straight undefeated conference record and regular season ACC title. However, a 7-0 run late in the fourth quarter by the Tar Heels erased a 15-10 Notre Dame lead and snatched the win away from the Irish.

The next week didn’t prove any better for Notre Dame. For the first time since 2014, the Irish lost two straight games as they dropped another ACC game against Duke in the ACC semifinals. In the six days that marked two losses for the Irish, the team dropped from the No. 1 to No. 7.

Despite the two losses, the Irish were given a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and, after defeating Army in the final game of their regular season on Sunday, 13-7, the Irish are confident in their chances of making a deep run in the national tournament. Landis just won his second straight ACC Defensive Player of the Year award and freshman attack Ryder Garnsey was named ACC Freshman of the Year. With the locker room’s confidence riding high as the tournament gets closer, Notre Dame is convinced that it’s still the team to beat.

“You can feel the hunger to get back to the championship in the locker room,” Finley said. “We want this more than we have wanted anything in our lives. The fact that we have been there before ... only drives us farther every day. We have guys on this team that have played in every possible big game, and I think that experience will pay dividends for us down the road.”

Notre Dame will take on Air Force in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday.