Notre Dame men's lacrosse looks to finish redemption run in NCAA Final Four
SOUTH BEND — Step into Arlotta Stadium for the sunset stages of a Notre Dame lacrosse practice earlier this week and it becomes an all-encompassing sensory experience.
You feel the afternoon sun beating down, turning the turf surface into an asphalt-like oven thanks to the temperatures and the humidity and all the other early-summer stuff.
You hear the occasional sounds of shots on goal banging and clanging off the crossbar — ping, ping, ping — then bouncing every which direction. Heads up! You hear veteran head coach Kevin Corrigan calling for four more minutes on the practice clock. Just a few more details to address, and they’ll be done for the day.
You smell the sweat of a group that has marched toward one common goal since the fall. Then the winter, then the spring. They’re almost there.
You see a team that goes about its business in an all-business manner. Sure, they know how to have fun, but not now. At least, not yet.
What you don’t see or feel or hear or sense anywhere in Arlotta is satisfaction. Not from this group. Not this year. Senior goalie Liam Entenmann said it best when the Irish huddled before Tuesday’s workout in advance of this weekend’s Men’s Final Four in Philadelphia — be grateful that the Irish are one of the last four teams in the country still doing lacrosse stuff. Practice, especially heading into this holiday weekend, is a privilege.
“That’s exactly what we’ve been preaching every day throughout this entire season and back into the preseason and the fall — not take any day for granted,” said senior attack Pat Kavanagh, one of the nation’s elite. “Especially after last season.”
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Those two words, that one season, could/should be taboo around a program that enjoyed sustained success for so many seasons. Yeah, let’s not talk about last year. Let’s not think about last year. For the previous 16 prior to May 2022, Notre Dame had advanced to the NCAA tournament every spring. It was a rite of passage. Notre Dame would be one of the best teams in the country in January and February and March and April and come May, show that it can play as well as anyone.
One day last May, 57 jaws collectively hit the locker-room floor as the players couldn’t believe what they were watching. Or hearing. Several strands of profanity floated around that room for hours. Some may still linger.
At 8-4 overall and tied for first in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Notre Dame was good in 2022, just not good enough to be included among the tournament’s field of 16. Like that, they were out, their season finished, their dreams done. Some college careers over. It’s been said that the moment for those Irish was like having their collective hearts ripped from their chests. It was worse.
“I don’t like to think about it too much,” said senior attack Jake Taylor. “It was hard. You take those moments in life and learn from them, let go of the emotions and learn the lessons they teach you.”
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Lessons were learned. Like not to take a single day or practice or game or anything about a season for granted. Embrace everything. Like tending to every detail, right on down to having a clean cubicle in the locker room and making certain the space was spotless after a practice or a game or a gathering.
It may have meant nothing, but to these Irish, to this season, the tiny details meant everything. Take care of every one of them, no matter how minor, and it might lead to a major payoff. That’s been the blueprint for this bunch.
Maybe Notre Dame got too satisfied with its past success, with winning, with being considered among the nation’s best. Maybe they thought the wins and the NCAA tournament runs would just keep coming regardless of the work. Maybe. But these Irish, this season, they weren’t leaving anything to chance. That meant starting over every single day. A new challenge. A new direction. A new resolve.
Reset the clock. Start over. Work, Repeat.
What happened last year or last month or even last week didn’t much matter. It couldn’t if Notre Dame was to get to a Final Four for the first time since 2015.
“That came with daily preparation and zero complacency,” said Entenmann. “We never got too cocky or confident after we won a few games in a row or when we were ranked No. 1. We never let that get to our heads.”
Notre Dame didn’t just beat opponents this season. It rolled over them, then backed up and rolled over them again. And again. The Irish won six games each by double-digit margins. It was ranked No. 1 for four weeks, but the Irish couldn’t have cared less. Nobody wins championships in the middle of March. This group wants to be No. 1 on Monday. That would mean a national semifinal win Saturday over Atlantic Coast Conference colleague/nemesis Virginia and a win the championship game for the first time in program history.
For this group, for this season, that’s what matters. That’s ALL that matters.
“The end goal has been very apparent for us the whole way,” Entenmann said. “We haven’t let anything good or bad in the middle of that get in the way.”
Conference colleagues meet again
Of course, it’s Virginia. It had to be Virginia. No way in this season’s run of redemption for No. 3 seed Notre Dame (12-2) that it wouldn’t cross paths again with No. 2 Virginia (13-3) on Saturday (2:30 p.m., ESPN2). These teams met twice during the regular season. The Cavaliers won twice — 15-10 and 12-8. The Irish didn’t play well, didn’t shoot it well, didn’t play their high-octane attacking style in those meetings.
They insist that the third time will be different, and that third time, if indeed different, would be sweet for Irish graduate senior midfield Jack Simmons. He already owns two national championship rings, both of which he insists has no idea of their whereabouts. Maybe in a drawer back at his parents’ house in Lutherville, Maryland. Maybe somewhere else. The school he won those two rings at?
The school standing in Notre Dame’s way to its first national championship game appearance since 2014?
“Weird would be a pretty good way to describe this one,” Simmons said of Saturday’s semifinal. “I have a lot of friends on that team, but I’m excited about this team and how hard we’ve worked to get to this point.
“Once the game starts, you kind of get after it.”
Simmons could’ve closed out his collegiate career with his fifth season — his COVID season — where it started. After graduating last spring with a degree from the Darden School of Business, Simmons looked to earn a Master’s. Virginia doesn’t offer a one-year MBA program. Notre Dame does. The kid who grew up wearing Notre Dame hats and jerseys, the kid whose grandfather (Raymond Bender) was a captain of the Notre Dame men’s tennis team that shared a national championship in 1959 with Tulane traded Charlottesville for South Bend.
Simmons is headed to his third Final Four. He knows what awaits at Lincoln Financial Field — the enormity of playing in an NFL stadium, the energy, the expectations. He’ll counsel teammates who have been only casual spectators on the game’s biggest stage to embrace everything.
Rarely has the moment been too big this season for this group. Saturday has to be just another Saturday.
“It’s really a cool opportunity,” Simmons said. “It’s the same game — two goals, sticks, a ball, players. What an awesome opportunity.”
An opportunity that Notre Dame never had in 2022. Last Memorial Day weekend was hard for so many reasons. Kavanagh insists he can’t remember where he was. Taylor, with the wound of being left out still too raw, refused to watch the Final Four. Entenmann admitted that he watched the championship game on TV with his parents and his aunt and uncle. He had to watch.
“It really stung realizing that we could have and should have been there,” he said. “At the same time, we didn’t take care of everything during the year we needed to take care of. We did a better job of making sure to take care of everything this year. That’s why we’re still playing.”
Notre Dame has done a lot and won a lot this season, but the Irish aren’t where they believe they can be and should be. Where this team has to be. Four more quarters await, and then hopefully, four more. Two wins would be the ultimate payoff for the grind of these last 12 months.
Winning the school’s first national championship is something that Kavanagh thinks of every waking hour. Sometimes, even as he sleeps. Come game time, come Saturday, he must put that dream aside and play his life. Same for Entenmann. And Taylor. And Simmons, and everyone else Irish.
One more win means only one more step. Another step, another win after that would be the ultimate. It would be the school’s first national championship. It would be the first title for Corrigan, who has a ridiculous 333 wins over 35 seasons. This group has a chance to be THE group.
Championship Monday? That can wait. For now, it’s only about Semifinal Saturday.
“You’ve got to stay in the moment,” Kavanagh said. “We keep playing our game, keep playing hard, finish shots, we should be able to get it done.”
Get it done once. Then get it done again. Only then will the Irish exhale. Only then will there be a sense of something else.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
NCAA Men's Lacrosse Final Four
∎ Who: No. 2 seed Virginia (13-3) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (12-2).
∎ Where: Lincoln Financial Field (67,594), Philadelphia
∎ When: Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
∎Noting: Saturday’s winner advances to Monday’s championship game against the winner of No. 1 seed Duke and No. 5 Penn State. … Notre Dame is in the Final Four for the first time since 2015, which was also held at LFF.