Coming off of a narrow but spectacular victory over the Princeton Tigers, the Cavaliers travel to Philadelphia this weekend for a second round NCAA match-up with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Notre Dame is a relative newcomer to the world of college lacrosse, though their performance in recent years has been top-tier. They have appeared in the NCAA tournament every year since 2006, losing to Duke in the finals in 2010; head coach Kevin Corrigan has been an outstanding leader on and off the field.
Virginia's 2012 NCAA seeding is quite opportunistic. The Cavaliers match up well against the Fighting Irish, with a wicked offense and a stifling defense that shut down a vaunted Princeton offensive unit. Readers may be questioning Virginia's offensive capability, and at this point in the season they are certainly trending downward; before stumbling against Duke, Virginia averaged just over 13 goals per game. In the four games since and including Duke, Virginia has been averaging 7.5. These numbers may appear alarming, but there are a few caveats. Many of our higher-scoring games came against lesser opponents like VMI, Vermont, and Mount St. Mary's, thus our early season numbers are certainly inflated. I would treat every Duke game as a statistical outlier, at least until such point in time where the Blue Devils are no longer Cavalier Kryptonite. Tyler Fiorito, Princeton's goalie, was a man on fire during last Sunday's game; Virginia could easily have scored another 5-7 goals on fairly routine one-on-one looks, thus Princeton remains somewhat of an outlier as well.
In my opinion, this 2012 Virginia squad averages in the range of 9-13 goals against top-tier opponents. I expect our offense to come out firing against Notre Dame, for a couple of reasons. Matt White being substituted in at attack makes a big difference on the field; he is a threat to score from behind the crease as well as nearly any point 0-10 yards in front of it. He keeps pressure off of Steele Stanwick, assists with quarterbacking, and has excellent dodging skills to complement midfielder Colin Briggs. If our midfielders can initiate close dodging either in the alley or from goal line extended, this creates more open looks for our talented spot shooters Rob Emery and Chris Bocklet. Colin Briggs has come on strong in the late season, and a few weeks of needed rest should have the boys ready to go.
This is not to say that scoring is going to come easy. Notre Dame currently has the top-ranked defense in college lacrosse. They've held every single opponent they've faced this year to under 10 goals, including talented Syracuse and Yale squads. They did, however, struggle late in the season against St. John's, a squad that not too many would have expected to hang with Notre Dame. Goalie John Kemp is top in the NCAA with a 0.641 save percentage. On paper, Notre Dame has the tools to deal with the Virginia offense. They will play aggressive, physical defense, and attempt to shut down the Cavalier inside game. Virginia will need to have a combination of excellent inside feeding and outstanding distance shooting to find the back of the net.
Virginia's defensive unit put together a complete game against a high quality opponent in Princeton, possibly for the first time this season. Matt Lovejoy and Chris Clements had 4 caused turnovers each; Chris LaPierre was everyone on the field, and Scott McWilliams had a quiet but impressive day handling Tom Schreiber. The defense allowed the Cavaliers to overcome a 9 to 5 deficit in face-offs, which resulted in a lot of possession time for the Tigers. It's also important to note that the defense stuck together through the end of the game; they stood solid, played aggressively, and communicated effectively. The zone look against Princeton was a killer, forcing the Tigers to rely on some poor outside shooting and shutting down what seemed like dozens of passes to the interior.
Notre Dame's offense runs through attackman Sean Rogers, with midfielder Jim Marlatt providing assistance. If Virginia can shut down Rogers, possibly through a quick slide package in man-to-man or a very aggressive zone, Notre Dame is going to have a tough time finding scoring opportunities. While the Irish goalie may lead the nation in save percentage, Rob Fortunato is not far behind, and has been outstandingly consistent for the Cavaliers this year; I wish we had him for another. Against Princeton, our short stick defensive midfielders were the most aggressive and consistent I have seen all season. Pat Harbeson hung with Forest Sonnenfeldt, who held a 75-pound weight and 10-inch height advantage.
Face-offs should swing the Cavaliers' way a bit more on Sunday; Virginia is ranked 15th, and Notre Dame comes in ranked 40th. Virginia will need to earn each and every possession and make them count in order to break through a stout (harrrrrrrrr) Irish defense. I expect big games from any of the following names: Rob Emery, Steele Stanwick, Matt Lovejoy, and Chris Bocklet. If Virginia can rattle John Kemp's cage early and gain possession advantages, they have all of the offensive tools necessary to put a hurt on Notre Dame.
It's a shame that Sunday's match-up starts at High Noon on Virginia's Final Exercises day. I'll be keeping a close eye on the game from my cell phone as I watch my brother graduate. Virginia would advance to face the winner of Loyola/Denver, another excellent match-up for the 'Hoos. Loyola has had an outstanding season but lacks recent tournament experience, and Virginia matches up well against Denver.