Who: No. 3 Notre Dame (10-3) vs. Air Force (15-2)
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Arlotta Stadium, Notre Dame, Ind.
It’s a tradition they’d rather not break.
Despite the advantages that come with a home game to start the NCAA Tournament – Notre Dame lacrosse has hosted one the past five years and won them all – the former preseason No. 1 would rather get out of South Bend.
For most of the past decade the tournament took Notre Dame away from campus on commencement weekend. That’s let Kevin Corrigan’s program stage a boutique graduation on the road, complete with speakers. Now, after facing Air Force tonight at Arlotta Stadium (7:30 p.m., ESPNU), the Irish will march through general population pomp and circumstance on Sunday.
“To be honest with you, I think our players are more upset about having to be at graduation,” Corrigan said. “I’m sure their parents will love being part of the bigger graduation ceremony, but I think our guys have really enjoyed us having our own thing.”
Habit has been good for Notre Dame, from how Corrigan regularly schedules a game after the ACC Tournament to how the Irish tackle a national schedule. Notre Dame has played seven games against tourney competition, which doesn’t include a January home exhibition against Air Force. The Falcons return here having won 15 straight, although just one of those came against an NCAA Tournament team.
The Irish went 4-3 against the field but dropped their final two, which cost them an outright ACC title (North Carolina) and eliminated them in overtime of the ACC Tournament semis (Duke).
Yet Corrigan believes the Irish are still peaking.
Considering Notre Dame is tied for the longest NCAA Tournament streak nationally (11 straight years) and stands alone in consecutive quarterfinal appearances (six straight), it’s hard to argue. A seventh would mean winning tonight.
“If I was to look at the season as a whole and let’s take our best 60 minutes from every single game, then honestly 20-to-30 minutes would have come out of those two (losses) alone,” Corrigan said. “We played some great lacrosse in those games, we just didn’t sustain it. That’s a lesson in itself.”
If Notre Dame eliminates Air Force it gets the winner of Marquette-North Carolina in the quarterfinals in Columbus, Ohio. The Irish lost 17-15 to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill last month when North Carolina closed on a 7-1 run. One game earlier, Notre Dame beat Marquette 8-7 in overtime at home.
If the Irish return to the Final Four over Memorial Day weekend and perhaps take the program’s first national championship, it will rely on the same faces who have got Corrigan there so regularly.
Notre Dame has made the Final Four in three of the past four years and bowed out to the eventual national champion each time.
For the Irish to lift the trophy senior attack Matt Kavanagh must lead the charge even as his game has evolved through experience and injury. His 18 goals are a career-low but with 27 assists already he should set a career-high there if the Irish go deep.
Mikey Wynne (31 goals), Sergio Perkovic (25 goals) and Ryder Garnsey (23 goals) have out-paced Kavanagh, who led Notre Dame in goals as a freshman and sophomore. Now he’s meshed the Irish attack in a different way, including a mentorship of the freshman Garnsey.
That group paired with three-year starting goalie Shane Doss and two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year Matt Landis gives Notre Dame enough NCAA experience to keep this month in perspective.
“In a way there’s more pressure. In a way there’s less pressure,” Corrigan said. “We’ve been working so hard to get to this point that now I think you can relax and say now it’s about playing our best lacrosse and being the best team we can be.
“We’ve worked awfully hard and long to get here, so let’s enjoy that ride for the next three weeks, hopefully.”
Cap and gown aside, the Irish look ready to do just that.