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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

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Irish put together historic season with a heartbreaking end

Notre Dame women’s lacrosse posted a 16-4 record but fell short in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments

Heading into the season, the Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team returned a core of nearly 20 seniors and graduate students with a wealth of experience, including two straight runs to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. With this talented returning group, the expectations for the season were higher than ever. Head coach Christine Halfpenny described her mentality approaching the season and the impact of having experience in the building. 

“Our expectations are the same every year: to be the best team that’s ever come through Notre Dame … what’s made it different is the experience that this team brought into this year is experience like no other team has had here at Notre Dame … that then sets up that same goal and that awesome big vision but with it, that shot of adrenaline and a ticking clock,” Halfpenny said.

 After opening up with two dominant wins over Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan, the Irish were set to face their first and most challenging test of the entire season, hosting defending champion Northwestern. After showing the resilience to come back and take control after trailing in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame emerged with a 14-10 victory to start its season 3-0. The statement victory marked the first time in program history that Notre Dame had defeated the No. 1 team and snapped a 22-game win streak for the Wildcats, the longest active streak in the country at the time. It set the tone for what would be a historic season for the Irish.

“It took just a one-play-at-a-time mentality and a unity that is indivisible, that no one can break up,“ Halfpenny said. “You truly have to be unshakeable when you play reigning defending champs.”

The Irish comfortably handled Butler a couple of days later before finishing off their homestand against Syracuse for the first conference game of the season. This marked the beginning of a defining stretch of games. Notre Dame suffered its first loss of the season in a 16-14 heartbreaker against the Orange. However, the Irish responded with a gutty, 7-5 win on the road against North Carolina in the following game. A week later, they fell in another nail-biter, losing 12-10 to conference rival Virginia at home.

But once again, the Irish showed their ability to respond to adversity. They did not drop another game for the remainder of the regular season, finishing on a nine-game win streak heading into the ACC Tournament. In the games following the defeat to the Cavaliers, they pulled off three straight one-goal wins, all of them on the road, showing their toughness in the highest-pressure moments. In these games, senior midfielder MK Doherty scored an incredible three consecutive game-winning goals to help the Irish knock off Brown 16-15, Boston College 15-14 and Clemson 14-13 in double overtime. As much as the Northwestern win boosted the team’s confidence, Halfpenny placed weight on the wins that followed as confirmation of her team’s capabilities.

“The confirmation that beating [North] Carolina two years in a row, like, ‘Yup, this isn’t a one-and-done thing, this isn’t a fluke’ … that final feat over BC [Boston College] which happened right after a massive test against Brown, I think that all of that has accumulated to this confidence in who we are and how you win lacrosse games as a team,” she said.

The story of the season cannot be told without highlighting the brilliance of what many have dubbed the “Big Three” of graduate students attacker Jackie Wolak, attacker Madison Ahern and midfielder Kasey Choma. The three combined for 268 of the team’s points, Wolak leading the way with 110 and Ahern and Choma following behind with 80 and 78, respectively. Wolak and Ahern made history as the only set of teammates with over 300 career points on the same roster. USA Lacrosse Magazine honored Wolak and Choma with first-team honors, with Ahern being named an honorable mention. Wolak also earned ACC Attacker of the Year and is among the finalists for the Tewaaraton Award, given to the best player in women’s college lacrosse.

Beyond its outstanding on-field production, Halfpenny highlighted the trio's leadership role throughout the season. 

“They set a lot of individual things aside because they would never ever let down their teammates … sometimes it’s not really vocal, sometimes it’s just incredibly accountable in the style that they play and the way they show up to train,” Halfpenny described.

The Irish received massive contributions outside of the Big Three as well. They boasted a record seven All-Americans, with Doherty (second-team), senior draw specialist Kelly Denes, senior defenseman Keelin Schlageter and graduate student defenseman Olivia Dooley (honorable mentions) joining Wolak, Ahern and Choma on the list. Senior Lilly Callahan started every game in goal, allowing 9.23 goals per game with a .431 save percentage. The upperclassmen-led defense ranked 13th in scoring defense despite facing one of the toughest schedules in the country.

Unfortunately for the Irish, their dream season was cut short in both postseason tournaments. After a 14-12, first-round victory in the ACC Tournament over Clemson, Notre Dame fell 9-7 to No. 3 seed Boston College. Then, after rolling past Coastal Carolina in round one of the NCAA Tournament, Michigan came into Arlotta Stadium and knocked off the Irish 15-14 on a buzzer-beating goal. It was a heartbreaking end to a truly historic season for Notre Dame Halfpenny, who got a milestone 150th win with the program in her 13th season. The Irish finished 16-4 overall with a 7-2 conference record and continued to assert themselves as perennial contenders in women’s college lacrosse.