Notre Dame Takes Spring Premiere Loss in Stride


Sophomore Sydney Flynn is an emerging contributor for Notre Dame.

Lessons were learned as Notre Dame enjoyed sunny Bradenton, Fla., in its first-ever trip for a preseason training camp. In the program’s 31 years, the women’s lacrosse team has never traveled together over Christmas break to prepare for the upcoming season.

After four workouts in three days, plus a trip to the beach, and their first-ever competition against the U.S. women’s national team, the Irish will be better prepared for ACC competition in the spring. Team USA defeated Notre Dame 22-5, but the Irish saw highlights throughout the weekend – and the game.

“It was a really awesome experience all around,” Notre Dame coach Christine Halfpenny said. “Nothing but positives came from it. It’s like a mini training camp that takes you away from campus, away from distractions, no academics. It absolutely kind of shows you what can be missing at times when you’re on campus in a typical academic year when you’re not able to get away. It was neat. You got to kind of live the life of a professional lacrosse player for four days.”

Notre Dame enters the 2017 season ranked eighth in the Nike/US Lacrosse rankings. Here are five key takeaways from their scrimmage against Team USA that will give the Irish good luck this spring:

1. Giacolone kept the Irish alive.  

Sophomore goalie Samantha Giacolone started all 21 games in her freshman campaign and returns as Notre Dame’s starter in net for 2017. As a U.S. under-19 silver medalist, she thrived in the Team USA environment in Florida, making more saves than the American goalies.

On 49 shots, she recorded 16 saves, compared to seven for the U.S. If it weren’t for her stopping abilities, supplemented by her speed and lacrosse IQ, Team USA could have easily run up the score.

“She was awesome,” Halfpenny said. “I don’t want to be overzealous, but she was as expected. Sam Giacolone is as advertised. She showed extremely well, but I don’t think anybody was surprised. In Sam we trust.”

2. The draw turned out to be a positive.

During the game, the draw appeared to be a weakness for Notre Dame, but upon further review of film back in South Bend, Ind., it was the opposite.

“When we broke down the film, it turns out we were touching the ball first a lot, so we were really, really excited,” Halfpenny said. “We were like, ‘Wait a minute. We’re the first ones to get to it,’ but we just weren’t comfortable and we weren’t practicing the routine of having all of those bodies crashing in the circle.”

Notre Dame played with international rules against Team USA, meaning four players from each team were on the draw circle, instead of two each as required by NCAA rules. The stat sheet may say the U.S. won the draw battle 21-8, but the Irish improved in the second half, allowing for players to shine against the best.

“It was also nice to have that many people on the circle to see who stood out,” Halfpenny said. “Who was able to get that first step and get toward the ball? At times, you look at that U.S. opportunity as a tryout of sorts. Show us what you got when the pressure is on and when it’s really, really difficult, because that’s what the majority of our schedule looks like.”

Senior midfielder Casey Pearsall is Notre Dame’s go-to draw specialist. She grabbed one draw control, while sophomore Nikki Ortega and freshman Savannah Buchanan each had two. Freshman Erin McBride added one.

3. New faces will contribute in 2017.

Of the starting lineup against Team USA, only four Notre Dame players started more than 10 games in their 2016 season – sophomore attacker Nikki Ortega (14), senior defender Katherine Eilers (16), sophomore goalie Samantha Giacolone (21) and senior midfielder Casey Pearsall (21).

Freshman midfielder Savannah Buchanan got her first start of the year, while junior Abi Cullinan, plus sophomores Sydney Flynn, Makenna Pearsall and Hannah Proctor, earned their spot in the starting lineup. Senior Grace Muller, junior Molly Cobb and sophomore Samantha Lynch have also likely solidified a recurring starting role.

“We put our four returning starters from last year’s team against the U.S. team on Sunday,” Halfpenny said. “With that alone, when you have 12 spots and you’re only putting four starters, that could be daunting. But for us, we had kids in waiting.”

Just a few of the player highlights for Halfpenny include the following: Buchanan, “an absolute warrior,” playing relentless in the ride, being the first to touch the ball on the draw and also scoring; Cobb’s speed creating opportunities on both offense and defense; Cullinan returning after being out for a year and a half, filling necessary roles in the midfield; Lynch taking her sophomore year “by storm,” always finding a way to the back of the net; and Makenna Pearsall recovering from her injury, showcasing a strong defensive game and IQ.

And of course, Halfpenny is excited to get senior attacker Cortney Fortunato back in the mix after she played for Team USA in Florida.

“It will be nice to have Cortney back there to QB our offense,” she said. “We really need that unit.”


"In Sam we trust," Notre Dame coach Christine Halfpenny says of sophomore goalie Samantha Giacolone, who made 16 saves against Team USA.

4. Lessons were learned.

Team USA exposed holes in Notre Dame’s play, such as the clear, but Halfpenny was OK with that. It provided a learning opportunity to improve for the ACC, historically known as the best conference in Division I.

Playing against the U.S. high-pressure ride was definitely a weakness, with the Irish converting just 11 of 24 clears, but everything can be fixed, she said.

“That’s the exciting thing for us,” Halfpenny said. “It’s not like we were completely failing on our 1v1s or completely failing our communication. ‘OK, it’s our first time out against the fastest players in the country – and in the world. We can fix this.'"

The key lessons were learning how to keep their heads up, especially when the U.S. doubles came from every direction, learning how to move to space, and also learning to get comfortable with releasing the ball quicker in a high-intensity scenario.

“We’re OK with them exposing weaknesses, because we can identify them, get back to the drawing board and fix them,” Halfpenny said. “It’s great to go against the toughest it will ever be to learn those lessons.”

5. The Irish aren’t quitters.

With just 1:22 remaining on the clock, Notre Dame still wanted to score. The Irish weren’t going to give up, although they knew they wouldn’t win the game. The starting freshman, Savannah Buchanan, tallied an unassisted goal, showing the fans what the Irish were all about – never quitting.

“That’s been the growing culture of us,” Halfpenny said. “That’s just us being who we are. That was certainly one of the biggest takeaways when I came home. When we landed here in South Bend, my immediate thought was we never felt down. We never felt defeated. We never felt sorry for ourselves.

“As strange as that might sound, that’s an expectation of any coach, but to see your team carry it out, they have the courage,” she added. “We understood who we were and what this experience was about. It’s about seeing who we are right now. What can we do to be the absolute best?”

The no-quit mentality should bode well against Northwestern in Notre Dame's home opener Feb. 5.

“Not only did we score under two, we still had some gas in the tank, and that’s super exciting as a coach to know there’s an absolute never-count-us-out type of attitude happening,” Halfpenny said.

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