Battle scars tell story for O'Connor, ND lax

South Bend Tribune

Signs of the sacrifice required to reach the college game's grandest stage while working from one of the most demanding positions can be seen up and down the legs of Notre Dame lacrosse senior midfield Liam O'Connor.

A face-off specialist who has spent four seasons bat-tling for possessions at one of the country's most successful programs, O'Connor has lower limbs that look like they've lost a wrestling round with barbed wire.

There are cuts and scrapes down one leg, bruises up the other. Stray scabs from turf burns have faded but linger. O’Connor’s left knee, which was surgically repaired last summer after he suffered a dislocated kneecap and torn medial patella femoral ligament, remains shaved smooth. That helps when it's time to add, then remove, another bundle of tape required to hold it all steady so he can play.

A deep scar where he needed stitches after one memorable moment this spring still is visible below his right knee. It serves as a re-minder of how important this weekend is for Notre Dame.

When it comes time to crouch down across from his counterpart with his stick on the ground, his hands at the ready, his thoughts racing be-fore the start of another face-off sequence, there's no place O'Connor would rather be than in the middle of it all trying to gain the Irish an-other possession.

Everything in the game revolves around a ball that weighs about 5.25 ounces, and it’s O’Connor’s job to get it for the Irish. The start of every 12-minute quarter be-gins with the face-off. Same for after every goal. Win it and you have the chance to control the game. Lose it, and you’re automatically on your heels and scrambling to keep the opponent from dictating pace.

“I’ve always loved that one-on-one competition in the middle of the field,” said the 6-foot, 190-pound O’Connor. “The most important thing is to be competitive, just go out there and compete and grind out every face-off.”

O'Connor's work will be a key Saturday during the semi-finals of the NCAA Championship at 71,000-seat M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. No. 6 seed Notre Dame (11-5) faces No. 7 Maryland (13-3) around 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2).

Fifth-seeded Denver and No. 1 Duke meet in the semi-final opener. Winners return Monday to decide a national champion.

O’Connor knows well what the Irish will walk into along Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. He played in the Final Four as a sophomore. And growing up in suburban Philadelphia, it was common for O’Connor and his bud-dies and brothers — he’s one of eight children — to make the short trip to Baltimore to watch Championship Week-end. Seeing so many fans and seats shouldn’t faze him.

“It’s a huge stage to play on, the biggest stage in our sport and it’s really amazing, but at the end of the day, it’s just another game,” O’Connor said. “We have to focus on that and focus on every play.”

And focus on winning those face-offs, something that O’Connor did with steady success at the start and end of his final season while navigating a midseason malaise.

“He was great early and he was great late; in-between, not so much,” said Irish coach Kevin Corrigan. “We’re certainly going to keep working with him, and he’s prepared to put his best foot forward.”

O’Connor has taken 322 of 405 face-offs this season. He’s won 193, which ranks 15th nationally at 59.9 percent. During the NCAA quarterfinal victory over Albany, a 14-13 overtime thriller that saw No-tre Dame roar back from a five-goal deficit with eight minutes remaining, O’Connor won 21 of 31 face-offs.

When he’s been good, so too have been the Irish. He has to be this weekend.

“The kid’s been facing off for four years at this level, and he’s been playing at a high level for four years,” Corrigan said. “He doesn’t need me whispering in his ear at the 11th hour about new things we need to do.”

Not long ago, Notre Dame and Maryland were strangers in separate conferences. Now, no introductions are needed for the ACC col-leagues. Saturday is the third time in five weeks the teams have met. Maryland won the first matchup, 12-8, on April 19, the last time Notre Dame lost. The Irish won the re-match, 6-5, in the league tournament.

The teams know one an-other well, especially O’Connor and his face-off counterpart, junior midfield Charlie Raffa.

Like O’Connor during his junior year, the 6-1, 195-pound Raffa has been slowed this spring by a lingering knee injury. He never practices on Mondays and seldom on Tuesdays. But when it’s time to play, he wins face-offs. Lots of them. Heading into Saturday’s showdown, Raffa is ranked No. 2 in the nation (183-of-270, .678). In the two meetings with Notre Dame, Raffa won 15 of 17 battles against O’Connor.

“He’s played awesome this year,” O’Connor said. “He’s definitely the best face-off guy in the country.”

Thanks to Raffa, O’Connor has that gash on his lower-right leg, the one that required stitches this spring. During one face-off battle in the teams’ first meeting, the brace that Raffa wears on his knee broke and sliced O’Connor’s leg.

If O’Connor again struggles against Raffa, junior Nick Ossello may get the call to work as the Irish ‘X.’ While O’Connor is more of a tech-nician on draws, where he uses his fast hands to gain an advantage, Ossello likes to use his sturdy 6-1, 195-pound frame to dominate. If he doesn’t win a face-off, some-thing he likens to a game of rock-paper-scissors, Ossello still will make sure he’s not going to lose the battle on the ensuing possession.

“I kind of get upset when a guy gets one or two face-offs in a row on me,” said Ossello, second on the squad with 36 of 77 face-offs won. “I use that emotion. It’s kind of fun to go run and hit people.”

Like his teammates, Ossello has worked all week to remind himself that Saturday is just another game. But it’s not, especially with all the texts and e-mails from family and friends reminding him of what’s at stake.

“Pretty much, this is the biggest weekend of my life to date,” Ossello said. “No pressure.”

Pages of the next chapters in O’Connor’s life have al-ready been turned. He and 15 teammates celebrated graduation at a small ceremony last weekend on Long Island before beating Albany. Once this weekend ends, he’ll soon head for Australia, where he’ll play profession-ally for six months. After that, it’s back to Philadelphia, a short drive from his Haverford, Pa., home, where the finance major begins his career in risk assurance with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

O’Connor isn’t ready for his college career to end just yet. Unfinished business re-mains in Baltimore, and O’Connor is focused on get-ting the Irish into the national championship game for the second time in school history, and first since 2010.

“Playing in the Final Four is something I’ve always dreamed of since I was a little kid,” O’Connor said. “To be in this position senior year, it’s something I never would have dreamed of.”

Notre Dame senior Liam O'Connor and the Irish lacrosse team take aim this week at the NCAA Final Four. Photos courtesy of University of Notre Dame