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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024
The Observer

Stars lead the way for Irish deep into NCAA Tournament

The No. 8 Irish reached the NCAA Quarterfinals for the second time in the last three years in 2023.

There are a lot of things that go into being able to win, especially in the postseason. Quality depth, coaching, tenacity and simply a little bit of luck are essential prerequisites for success. But it's hard for even the deepest, best coached and most downright fortunate team to prevail consistently if they don't have elite talent to take over a game.

Fortunately for the No. 8-ranked Notre Dame women's lacrosse team, they have a few of those players. Six members were named All-Americans by USA Lacrosse Magazine. Four of those players were selected to the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association's (IWLCA) West/Midwest All-Region Team.

The elite talent reaches all corners of the Irish roster. The six All-Americans include a pair of attackers in seniors Jackie Wolak and Madison Ahern. There's a trio of midfielders in senior Kasey Choma, junior Mary Kelly Doherty and graduate student Hannah Dorney. And perhaps most importantly, there's one in the net, thanks to junior Lilly Callahan. That level of outstanding talent makes it easy to see why head coach Christine Halfpenny was so optimistic heading into the season.

”We are really, really excited for what this group is doing and how they’re moving us forward,” Halfpenny said prior to the season. “It is going to be exciting to see.”

Exciting it has been. After an early NCAA Tournament exit last year to Michigan, the Irish entered 2023 hungry to improve. Some tweaks to the coaching staff around Halfpenny and a veteran roster have kept the squad up to the challenge thus far. The Irish took care of business throughout the regular season, posting an excellent 12-4 record despite a loaded schedule.

Three of Notre Dame's four regular season defeats (and four of their five overall losses) have come against the top three teams in the country: Northwestern, Boston College and Syracuse. The one exception to that rule is a defeat at the hands of No. 12 Virginia, hardly a pushover in their own right.

And it's not like the Irish aren't capable of beating great teams. The Irish took down No. 4 North Carolina 16-12 on April 1, undoubtedly their biggest win of the regular season. Their five All-Americans combined for 11 goals. Callahan made seven crucial saves. It took a team effort to push the Irish over the top, just as it always will against great competition. But it's much easier to make that push when you have great players to lead it.

That has certainly been the case in the NCAA Tournament. The Irish took care of business in their first round game, handling Mercer with ease in a 21-6 rout. The three-headed scoring monster of Ahern, Choma and Wolak combined for 15 goals, with Choma and Wolak scoring six apiece.

In their biggest test to date, the Irish rose to the moment in the second round. Taking on No. 6 Florida in Gainesville, Florida, the Irish pulled out one of their most impressive wins in recent memory. Once again, Ahern, Choma and Wolak led the way, tallying three, four and five goals each. The Irish didn't blink when a 15-11 lead with 6:55 left disappeared thanks to a stunning four-goal Gator blitz. With just 10 seconds left in regulation, Choma fired a shot while being pestered by two defenders inside the far post to give Notre Dame the lead for good.

That goal sent the Irish to the NCAA Quarterfinals for the second time in three years. Awaiting them is the same team that beat them in the quarterfinals in 2021 — the Boston College Eagles. The Irish have not beaten Boston College, a perennial championship contender, since March 7, 2020. But with the type of talent the Irish have, no team will take them lightly any time soon.