In NCAA lacrosse final, Notre Dame men are thinking defensively against Duke

By Christian Swezey
Monday, May 31, 2010

BALTIMORE -- Notre Dame senior Scott Rodgers, the lacrosse team's starting goalie, could barely talk on Sunday. He lost his voice trying to direct the team's defense above the noise of the more than 40,000 who attended the semifinals on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

"I lost it in the first quarter," Rodgers said Sunday.

Rodgers may not need his voice too much when the unseeded Fighting Irish (10-6) face No. 5 Duke (15-4) in the NCAA championship on Monday at 3:30 p.m. Notre Dame's defense is executing its system to perfection.

The scheme Notre Dame uses is unique because its defenders routinely switch assignments if the offensive formation dictates. It's unusual in lacrosse, where many teams have specific personnel assignments for their defensive players.

But it clearly is working: The Fighting Irish have given up five, five and seven goals in their three NCAA tournament games.

In one possession of Notre Dame's 12-7 victory over Cornell in the semifinals on Saturday, all three starting close defensemen -- senior Mike Creighton, junior Kevin Ridgway and sophomore Kevin Randall -- guarded Cornell all-American attackman Rob Pannell.

For the game, those three, plus junior longstick middie Andrew Irving and sophomore reserve Jake Brems, guarded Pannell at some point.

"We don't have one guy trying to make a flashy play," Rodgers said. "We think of ourselves like a machine and everyone has their part. When all the parts are working, we're pretty unstoppable."

It is a team approach, but the unquestioned leader is Ridgway. A graduate of Georgetown Prep, Ridgway has had a strong tournament. He primarily guarded Pannell on Saturday and held him to two assists and 0-for-9 shooting. In a 7-5 quarterfinal win over Maryland, he held junior Ryan Young to one assist.

Ridgway started the season well, too. He held Duke all-American Ned Crotty to no goals and three assists in Notre Dame's 11-7 victory on Feb. 20.

The championship game is the first since 1973 to feature two teams that have not won a title. Notre Dame and Duke share something else in common, too. Both had bye weeks -- unusual in lacrosse -- toward the end of the season.

Since its bye week on May 1, Duke is shooting 39 percent (68 for 174). Prior to the bye week, it was shooting 34 percent (195 for 573).

The bye week "gets everyone refocused," said junior attackman Zach Howell. "We have shooting camp early in the morning, before class. We do 30 minutes or so of shooting. It helps us take that extra step."

Notre Dame also had a bye week, in the second week of this month.

"It was a great week," Rodgers said. "We practiced the whole week, but we also got good rest because school was out at that time. It gave us a chance to refocus."

Win or lose, Monday marks the end of Duke's odyssey of having 33 players be granted a fifth-year of eligibility by the NCAA after its 2006 season was canceled following allegations (charges were later dropped) that three players had raped an exotic dancer at a team party.

Among the fifth-year players on this year's team are Crotty (23 goals, 62 assists) and faceoff specialist Sam Payton (132 of 229, 57.6 percent).

Fifth-year players are not the norm in lacrosse, though the trend is becoming more prevalent. Rodgers is a fifth-year senior for Notre Dame. Meantime, senior Sam Barnes, the team's top defender last year, has been given a fifth year for 2011 after he missed this season with an injury.

And senior Edson Parzanese, the leading scorer at Holy Cross this past season, has an extra year of eligibility and is expected to play for Notre Dame next year.

The NCAA's decision to grant so many Duke players a fifth year was a controversial one within the sport. Duke Coach John Danowski said the decision did not make things easy for his program.

"It's been different every year," Danowski said. "Emotionally, that first year [2007] was unmanageable. This team is much [more free]. I can't tell you that I knew that [2007] group well, it was new to us. I have a better feel for" this year's team.

For all the talk of fifth-year seniors and new champions, there is one other bit of history that Duke is trying to buck: In the 39 years of the NCAA tournament, only five teams have won the championship with a freshman as the starting goalie.

Duke is expected to start freshman Dan Wigrizer on Monday.

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