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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

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Irish season ends in heartbreak on late Michigan goal

Smith's late heroics enough for Michigan to eliminate Notre Dame with 15-14 win

When Notre Dame women's lacrosse was at its best in the 2024 season, it found ways to win in the game's most pivotal moments. In their February defeat of No. 1 Northwestern, the Irish outscored the Wildcats 5-2 in the final quarter to win by four goals. Notre Dame's recent 10-game win streak included three consecutive one-goal victories. Even in the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament, the underdog Irish scored with 10 seconds left to stun Florida by a single goal.

On Sunday, however, Notre Dame found itself on the dark side of May lacrosse at Arlotta Stadium. The Irish, who trailed for all of six and a half minutes in their second-round NCAA Tournament tilt against Michigan, fell behind when it mattered most — in the game's final second. Scoring as the clock hit zeros, the Wolverines stormed out of South Bend with a 15-14 win, clinching their first trip to the national quarterfinals. 

You never would have seen it coming given how Michigan entered the big dance. The Wolverines finished April with back-to-back one-goal losses, struggling to make the big play in the big moment. Notre Dame's first-round performance added to the shock of Sunday afternoon's result. The Irish obliterated Coastal Carolina on Friday, winning 24-6 to set program records for goals scored and margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game.

Two days later, it initially seemed that Notre Dame's offensive machine would never halt. All three members of the team's graduate student “big three” — Madison Ahern, Kasey Choma and Jackie Wolak — scored in the Michigan game's first eight minutes. Wolak, who set a program record with nine assists in the Coastal Carolina game, assisted on the first two Irish goals. In the meantime, Notre Dame had caused four Wolverine turnovers while allowing zero shots on goal, flexing its muscles on both sides of the ball.

But Michigan, like it did all afternoon, collected itself and answered right back. Katharine Merrifield, who had never scored more than two goals in a college game, tallied her first of a game-high four with five minutes to play in the first quarter. Annabelle Burke and Jane Fetterolf followed to tie the game as its first 15 minutes wrapped up.

To start the second quarter, Notre Dame repeated its earlier efforts by scoring three unanswered goals. Freshman midfielder Kathryn Morrissey, who went on to record her second consecutive postseason hat trick, restored the Irish lead with her 18th tally of the year. Ahern and Choma added their second goals of the game, putting the home favorites ahead 6-3. Though Merrifield and Michigan again offered a counterattack, Morrisey's second goal of the day ensured Notre Dame would take a 7-6 lead into halftime.

As the second half opened up, Michigan made it clear that Notre Dame's days of three-goal scoring runs were long gone. Just 50 seconds into quarter three, Julia Schwabe found the back of the net, leveling the score at 7-7. The teams then traded blows until Ahern's hat-trick goal moved the Irish ahead 9-8 three minutes into the second half. After five scoreless minutes passed without a goal, Caroline Davis struck unassisted to knot the score back up at nine-all. But that tie stood on pillars of sand, as the playmaker-scorer combination of Wolak and senior attacker Abby Maichin hooked up for two goals in a 43-second span. Though Fetterolf scored with one second left in the third quarter — an eerie sign of lacrosse to come for Notre Dame — the Irish advanced to the fourth quarter with an 11-10 advantage.

Three minutes into the final quarter of regulation, Michigan did what it hadn't done at any point in the game: take the lead. Merrifield's game-tying fourth goal of the match preceded Schwade's go-ahead tally from the free position, turning the score in Michigan's favor at 12-11. But again, Maichin put out the fire in a hurry, erasing the Wolverines' lead only 51 seconds after it appeared.

With just under eight minutes to play in the fourth, Jill Smith — Michigan's 50-goal scorer who had buried just one in Sunday's first 50 minutes — began to wake up. She paid off a Wolverine timeout with another go-ahead goal, but only for Choma to tie the score at 13-13 with her third tally of the afternoon just 58 seconds later. However, Michigan's next go-ahead goal — scored by Josie Gooch and set up by Smith's draw control with 5:12 remaining in regulation — would stand up much longer thanks to another win by Smith in the draw circle. All told, Notre Dame managed only one possession in a six-minute stretch after Choma's tying tally, and it ended with a massive save from Michigan goalie Erin O'Grady.

Still, a Wolverine misfire in the final 70 seconds left the Irish a final chance. Michigan's only foul in the final quarter, sent Wolak — who earlier in the day had become Notre Dame's all-time points leader — to the 8-meter for a free position shot. Bearing down from O'Grady's right, Wolak dipped around a Michigan defender, releasing a shot that tied the score at 14 with 31 seconds to play.

From there, the season came down to the draw circle, a place where Notre Dame's winning percentage of 62.9 ranked fifth in the nation entering Sunday. Michigan, however, cut that figure down to 41.9% on Sunday, and its 18th draw control of the game set up the decisive possession. The Wolverines would either score and advance or go empty and extend Notre Dame's season in overtime.

Smith, who made either outcome possible with her crucial sixth draw control, emerged as the one with the national quarterfinals on her stick. With three seconds left, she split two defenders and squared herself up with senior goalie Lilly Callahan. As the game reached its final second, Smith whipped a shot that Michigan fans will forever remember as a history-maker. While Notre Dame stood around its cage in agony, the Wolverines flooded out to midfield, celebrating their first trip to the national quarterfinals.

With No. 2 seed Boston College's 21-16 takedown of Princeton, Michigan will face the ACC champion next. There will be no rematch between the Eagles and Notre Dame, who met in last season's quarterfinals and split this year's season series. The Irish finish 2024 with a 16-4 record for their best winning percentage in program history but enter the offseason with their Final Four drought extended to 18 years.