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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

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Irish one win away from national championship repeat after defeating Denver

It's hard to imagine a team more polished for the big moment than Notre Dame men's lacrosse. Coming off a dramatic championship weekend en route to their first national title in 2023, the Irish spent the 2024 regular season playing before thousands at home and fielding every opponent's best shot as the top-ranked team in America. In the ACC Tournament, Notre Dame set the tone for its postseason aspirations by defeating both Virginia and Duke. And the team's only loss, an overtime fall to Georgetown in late February, Notre Dame swiftly avenged in last weekend's NCAA Tournament quarterfinal.

So when Notre Dame's title defense reached the biggest stage in college lacrosse — Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia — the Irish put their preparation on full display. With a 13-6 defeat of Denver in Saturday afternoon's national semifinal, Notre Dame advanced to its second consecutive national championship game.

The Irish used a combination of faceoff mastery, the Kavanagh brothers and a second-half supercharge to break away from the Pioneers. Will Lynch, Notre Dame's increasingly automatic junior faceoff specialist, gave Denver senior Alec Stathakis the business at the X, helping the Irish to an 18-5 advantage in faceoffs. Notre Dame's attacking duo of graduate student Pat Kavanagh and junior Chris Kavanagh, which put on a 12-point clinic against Georgetown last week, dazzled in the Final Four. Each brother notched a hat trick, combining for nine of the 20 Irish points recorded. Their performances fed into a second half that saw the Irish outscore Denver by an 8-2 count, running away with a game that was close at halftime.

But through 30 minutes, it was Denver that played stingy defense and hung right with the top-seeded team in the land. Right off the jump, the Pioneers made a turnover of Notre Dame's opening faceoff win before withstanding a sequence of three Irish shots in 23 seconds. A minute after Malcolm Kleban made the game's first save against Pat Kavanagh, his Pioneers started the scoring, as Richie Connell emerged from an invert and zipped a lefty shot off the crossbar and in.

However, the remaining 10 minutes and 58 seconds in the first quarter belonged to Notre Dame. Chris Kavanagh knotted the game up on a backdoor feed from junior midfielder Will Angrick less than a minute after Connell's goal. Then, long after Pat Kavanagh had given the Irish a 2-1 lead off a turnover, Chris dug deep into his bag of skills. Inside the first quarter's final minute, he took a skip pass from Pat, dashed down to the near post and whipped a backhanded shot over the back of his head while diving tangent with the goalmouth. The highlight reel goal put Notre Dame's lead at a pair through 15 minutes.

Denver didn't take long to respond, though. The Pioneers turned Notre Dame over three times early in the second quarter, leading to back-to-back goals from Michael Lampert and Stephen Avery. The game would remain tied at three for the next seven minutes — until Notre Dame found back-to-back goals of its own. Graduate attacker Jake Taylor, who struggled to find freedom against the specialized defense of a short-stick for most of the first half, was left alone and buried his 39th of the goal of the year with 4:45 until halftime. The Irish would lead for the remainder of the game, and freshman midfielder Jordan Faison helped that cause 51 seconds after Taylor with an acceleration-powered goal. Connell would deposit his second goal of the half with eight seconds remaining, but Notre Dame still carried a 5-4 advantage into the halftime break.

The first five minutes of the second half played out with the two teams trading goals, as Pat Kavanagh scored his 30th of the season and Lampert tallied on a shot that popped under the feet of Irish goalie Liam Entenmann and was poked over the goal line. However, the fluky Denver goal that narrowed Notre Dame's lead to 6-5 gave way to a second-half Irish avalanche. Notre Dame activated its depth and defensive prowess to outscore Denver 3-0 across the last 10 minutes of quarter three. Graduate midfielder Devon McLane preceded a lefty scorcher from senior midfielder Eric Dobson with his 34th goal of the season. The Kavanagh brothers then followed up, as Pat found Chris for a hat trick during a 2-on-1 off a ride. Entenmann also came up big in the third quarter, making five saves while Kleban came away with none.

Denver's last glimmer of hope appeared 83 seconds into the fourth quarter, when Joshua Carlson cut the Pioneer deficit to 9-6. If Matt Brown's team could further trim the gap down to two, it would have a realistic shot of settling into a fight with the Irish down the stretch. But Kevin Corrigan's experienced bunch rendered that circumstance implausible, scoring three goals in a matter of 61 seconds to change the game's complexion. McLane started the run with some geometric fortune, as he banked home a shot off the glove of a Denver defender. The Brown transfer would score again on the next possession, completing his hat trick. The ensuing Irish faceoff took all of seven seconds to find graduate midfielder Nick Harris, who ripped his third goal of the year from the right wing.

With the Irish up 12-6, the most prolific attacker in the history of Irish lacrosse put the game on ice with a memorable goal. Pat Kavanagh, fittingly using one more feed from his brother, went behind the back for his hat-trick goal, the game's final marker.

But no tricks are needed to decode the message Notre Dame is sending to the entire nation with each passing week. Under Kevin Corrigan, who collected his 350th career win on Saturday, the Irish look better than ever, making it abundantly clear that they are qualified and eager for a second consecutive national title.

Now 15-1 and on a 13-game win streak, Notre Dame will play for championship glory on Monday at 1 p.m. against Maryland. The Terrapins, whom the Irish defeated handily at home on March 3, breezed past Virginia in their semifinal game.