It’s win or go home time.
The Irish face their western rival for the 7th time in four years, with the Irish winning their early season game, and Denver having thumped the Irish last year in the NCAA quarterfinals. These two teams know each other incredibly well, and a another great installment in this rivalry is expected. Winner will face the victor of the Albany v. Richmond game in the quarterfinals next week in Long Island. Loser is done for the season.
A quick geography lesson for the lacrosse world. We love this rivalry and think it is one of the absolute best in the sport, but we grow weary of our east coast colleagues referring to this game as a “regional rivalry” when the distance between the two campuses is over 1000 miles. It is a rivalry forged on the two teams’ time on the lacrosse frontier, not because they are an Lyft ride apart from one another like other rivalries of geographical convenience.
The circle on the left is the Western Rivalry. The smaller circle on the right contains the 15 other teams in the NCAA tournament.
The Irish come into the game as perhaps the hottest team in the country with a 14-11 win over Duke, a 17-7 win over Virginia, and a 17-5 win over Army in the last two weeks. Denver is coming off a 3-8 loss to Georgetown in the Big East conference final, but was otherwise winning games comfortably to that point, including a 22-6 annihilation of NCAA tournament team Villanova. Denver’s defense has been the star in the last month, while for the Irish it has been offense, which will give Sunday’s game a very different feel from previous matchups.
What to expect.
A statement which will surprise no one: control of the middle of the field and faceoff X will be a huge factor in the outcome. Tewaaraton Award finalist Trevor Baptiste will look to pad his NCAA record faceoff win total, while John Travisano, and his wingmen John Sexton and Arden Cohen, will look to again make this a draw as they did in the early season game. Baptiste will be playing without his own superstar LSM Sean Mayle, which will isolate Baptiste more than usual. However, before we get too excited, Baptiste managed to destroy the Irish faceoff unit with a 22 of 23 performance in last year’s quarterfinal without too much help from anyone. But before we get depressed about this, let’s remember this battle:
This 45-second battle illustrates the key to this part of the game. First, the energy is incredible. As most face-off gurus have noted, Baptiste got the better of Travisano and had the clamp and control of the situation. However, Travisano knew if he could delay the exit long enough, he could set up Sexton and Cohen for a ground ball battle, which is exactly what happened. If you make Baptiste work and take his time, good things will happen.
On offense, the Irish will look to continue to put shots on net like they have the past two weeks. Denver’s defense is very good this year, but their goaltenders have been inconsistent. Shots on net are going to go in, the Irish need to trust their form of the past few weeks and keep shooting their shot. Plus, in the past few weeks scoring has come from more players than a defense can defend. The Irish bring inside scoring options (Wynne and Willetts), outside shooting (Costabile), dodging (Byrne), versatility (Gleason), and a wizard (Garnsey). With everyone finally healthy at the same time, the boys just need to retain their confidence.
Coming the other direction, Denver has not been as crisp on offense as we have seen in year’s past, but Ethan Walker and Austin French have feasted on the Irish (Walker with five goals on 5-for-5 shooting in the earlier game!). It appears they will be playing without Drew Supinski, which should help Notre Dame keep control. There is no secret to what the Pios will look to do on offense. They know the Irish like to slide and help, so they will keep moving the ball until a recovery from help is a moment too slow, and then they’ll pounce. In years past, they used their quick passing game to force slide-recovery rotation, but this year it seems they use dummy-dodges for that same purpose. They key for the Irish is to simply win their 1-on-1 matchups. If they don’t have to slide much, Denver will find few opportunities, particularly chances to free up Walker to shoot. Milikin and Schantz will need to win their battles on their own.
We also suspect the Irish will dial up the pressure on the ride in an effort to help neutralize the Baptiste possession problem. In the early season matchup, the Irish were not riding as effectively as they have the past few weeks, but their ability to generate pressure has improved exponentially this month. Denver will also be playing without LSM Sean Mayle as noted above, which should help this strategy.
The bottom line.
Denver will likely look to take the air out of the ball and limit possessions. It is a strategy that has served them well against the Irish, and with Baptiste in the lineup they have no reason to change. They will probe, probe, and probe until someone makes a mistake, and they are coached by a 7-time national champion. That is what they do. Notre Dame simply needs to be a bit faster, ride well, and be more efficient. If they shoot like they have the past few weeks, the outlook is good.