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Saturday, April 13, 2024
The Observer

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Wolak, seniors lead Irish to first win over No. 1 in program history

A special display from Notre Dame's graduate student and senior-laden roster kicked off Junior Parents Weekend on campus with a historic win.

For a brief moment on Friday night, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was 2010 in Notre Dame’s Loftus Sports Center.

Following the final bars of the traditional postgame alma mater, the chorus of Enrique Iglesias’ hit “I Like It” blasted over the facility’s speakers. The ensuing commotion in the impromptu sing-along by the Irish players may not have featured the same solemn reverence of their alma mater rendition, but it came with unbridled joy in spades.

The type of jubilation only brought by making history. The type of emotion only sparked by providing proof of concept for a graduate student-laden squad that bet big on their returning veterans.

Entering Friday, Notre Dame had beaten Northwestern, one of the premier powers of women's collegiate lacrosse, just once in their previous ten tries. That lone win was a 17-15 triumph, occurring weeks before a potentially special 2020 campaign was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Graduate student midfield Kasey Choma was one of a select few current Irish players that were a part of that 2020 team, which climbed all the way to No. 2 in national polls before seeing their season suspended permanently at an unblemished, but unfinished, 7-0 record. Choma knew how much it meant to score a win over a top-five team, and wanted the same for her teammates.

“Me, Madison [Ahern] and Jackie [Wolak] know what it took that year to beat Northwestern. Unfortunately the season got canceled that year. We were so hungry and really wanted it for our senior class too, to feel what that felt like. We knew what we had to do,” Choma said.

That lost season afforded four of Notre Dame’s seven goalscorers on Friday an additional season of eligibility to bring their college careers full circle. Ahern, Wolak and Choma were playing in their second career games when Notre Dame downed the Wildcats in 2020. They played their 67th, 67th and 68th games, respectively, in a win that will earn an immediate entry into university record books.

For the first time in 27 years of program history, Irish women's lacrosse took down No. 1. 

Northwestern came into the match on a 22-game win streak, a run that dated back just over a calendar year to Feb. 11, 2023. In that span they lifted the 2023 national championship and opened 2024 by taking down No. 5 Syracuse to establish themselves as favorites to repeat.

Notre Dame had other plans. The Irish fell behind early on, conceding three early goals. Izzy Scane, who torched Notre Dame for ten goals exactly one year prior, was among the scorers. For a moment, a brief fear washed over Loftus that the top-ranked Wildcats were going to run away with another win in the lopsided regional rivalry.

Washed over everyone but the Irish squad and their coach, that is.

Christine Halfpenny has been a college head coach for nearly two decades, and has presided over 13 years of Notre Dame teams. This season she has continually expressed an appreciation for her experienced squad — featuring 17 seniors and graduate students — refusing to quit.

“I think that’s a calling card for this team. We never go away,” Halfpenny said. “Ultimately, I knew to expect that resiliency. They weren’t going away. Not tonight. Not this season.”

Not tonight indeed. The Irish had other chances to fade over the course of a sixty-minute heavyweight fight that featured 49 total fouls. Notre Dame’s first two contests saw no more than 40 fouls — combined. But through every blow absorbed, Halfpenny’s squad refused to relent.

Early in the fourth quarter, after two quarters of periodic alternation between a tie ballgame and small Irish leads, Northwestern seemed poised to take control. In a span of roughly three minutes the Wildcats brought the score level and took their first lead since their initial 3-0 advantage. With a little under 10 minutes left until the final horn, it was the visitors who had the momentum.

But it was Notre Dame who then found their second gear. The Irish poured in 5 consecutive goals to tie the game, take the lead and eventually put the contest out of reach. Unsurprisingly, it was the program’s veterans who answered the bell. Among the scorers in Notre Dame’s final burst were Wolak, Ahern, senior Keelin Schlageter and senior Abby Maichin.

As the Irish offense found their groove, more veterans put in the dirty work to give the attack their chances. Notre Dame won five of the game’s last six draw controls after Northwestern’s go-ahead goal, with another pair of seniors — midfielders Mary Kelly Doherty and Kelly Denes — doing the lion’s share of the damage.

After the game, Halfpenny gave plaudits to Denes, currently on pace to lead the Irish in draw controls for a third consecutive season, for sparking the rally.

“It starts with Kelly Denes dominating the draw today,” Halfpenny said. “Against a really fantastic, highly respected Northwestern draw unit … She had 8 draws herself. She won direction over and over again. And when you can do that, that fuels the team.”

With Denes providing the fuel, Wolak, Ahern and Choma hit the accelerator. The trio accounted for over half of the Irish goals on the night, including the one that put the visitors away for good. The game ended with a 14-10 final, as the intimate atmosphere in the stands and balcony of Loftus Sports Center slowly ascended from tense excitement to euphoric celebration.

After the game, Choma made sure to spread the praise around. Notre Dame finished the contest ahead in just about every statistical category, from goals to turnovers forced.

“It’s really special,” Choma said. “We have such a mature team this year … I think we all know what we’re here to do for our last year. And we just love each other so much and it’s so evident out there on the field. It takes everyone, from Lilly [Callahan] all the way up to Jackie on attack. We all put the pieces together.”

Notre Dame may have made program history on Friday night, but they know there’s still more to come. The Irish still have five more games against ranked opponents on the docket. They’ve proven they can take down the best of the best, and with that proof comes further pressure.

But with yet another chapter added to the extensive legacy of the team's upperclassmen, Notre Dame managed to leave Loftus Sports Center with even more experience than they entered with. The sort of experience, accentuated by the hoarsely hollered lyrics of a 2010s pop sing-along, that can’t be replicated until the final whistle of a season-defining win blows.

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