In their streak of making five-straight NCAA tournaments, the Fighting Irish have averaged yielding roughly seven goals a game. Despite graduating the nation's biggest presence in net in goalie Scott Rodgers, the defense may be even better this year.
"We've had one of the best defenses the past couple years," says sophomore starting goalie John Kemp, "and you can really attribute that to coach [Gerry] Byrne, and his recruiting and the systems that he puts in. Our defense is really something that teams have to prepare for, and it's going to be hard to beat us."
"The growth that our defense is showing has been absolutely absurd," says senior All-America middie Zach Brenneman. That claim seems hyperbolic as Notre Dame's defense has been a model of consistency, making it difficult to imagine this unit getting somehow stronger.
"Our depth at defense is pretty remarkable," says Kevin Ridgway, the senior defender who garnered Honorable Mention All-America accolades last season, not to mention the respect of the lacrosse world for his performance in last year's tournament. "We have basically five guys who I think could potentially start at Notre Dame and at other places. We have great chemistry, and it's just a fun, core group of guys to work with."
Besides Ridgway, the close unit brings back juniors Jake Brems and Kevin Randall, Notre Dame's starting defense from the 2010 championship game. Returning from a leg injury that kept him sidelined in 2010, senior Sam Barnes has the capability of covering an opponent's top offensive threat.
The defensive midfield is just as tough. Senior Andrew Irving is everywhere at once at the longpole. Small in stature but big in his play, Irving has a slick stick he can use as a vacuum off the ground, an obstruction in passing lanes, and a weapon in transition. Junior Bobby Smith is another capable pole who will get his runs. The shortstick D may have more of a committee feel, but junior Devin Dobson, sophomore Quinn Cully, and senior Tim Bemer all can hold their own.
Stepping in goal for the graduated 6-4, 254-pound Rodgers is the 5-9, 170-pound Kemp, whose brother Joey was Rodger's All-America predecessor. While this will be John Kemp's first full season starting, he gained valuable experience over a four-game stretch in 2010, filling in while Rodgers was injured.
"It really gave me some experience to be able to bring over to this year," Kemp says of the quartet of games he started. "It really put me on the field and got me better knowing the defense and how they work on the field, and it got me more comfortable this year."
Comfort and poise are two things this defense worries little about with their new keeper. Despite his lack of experience, Kemp exudes a calm and collected attitude essential to being a successful collegiate goalie.
"He's tough to rattle; he keeps a very even keel," Ridgway says. "He seems like a veteran player just because he is so poised and calm in the cage."
Besides being steady, Kemp's hands are quick, allowing him to sit a little further back in the cage and snag shots at the last second. He also handles himself well outside the crease, says coach Kevin Corrigan, making him a vital part of the clearing game. The Irish hope Kemp's outletting ability helps spark some transition offense.
"I think that's going to be a big part of our game this year, attempting to push the ball up in transition," says Brenneman. "Those transition goals really change games."
Brenneman and his midfield mates will be the primary offensive catalysts for the Irish in 2011. The bullish, alley dodging middie showed last year he can still produce (29G, 13A), even when getting marked by opponents' best longsticks. His linemate, fellow senior Dave Earle (22G, 7A) showed his scoring touch in last season's tournament, highlighted in a five-goal outing in Notre Dame's first-round win over Princeton.
"I'd say Dave is more versatile," Brenneman concedes, "So when he's able to break down defenses and get me the ball on the back side, or vice versa, I really think we're going to cause some mayhem this year."
"I think Max Pfeifer and Eric Keppeler, two juniors, are both playing very well right now, and are going to be a big part of whatever we do along with Zach and Dave," Corrigan says, "and I think we have a bunch of you guys that are capable, a bunch of guys that are talented and have the ability to help us."
The attack lost their leader in Neil Hicks, but several new options have developed. Junior Sean Rogers (14G, 5A) emerged in last year's tournament and should be able to capitalize if defenses want to double pole the midfield and slide a shortstick down to cover the attack. Fifth-year senior Edison Parzanese enrolled in graduate school at Notre Dame after leading Holy Cross in scoring (16G, 19A) in 2010. Sophomore Ryan Foley, freshman Westy Hopkins, and senior Colin Igoe all provide viable options at attack or potentially midfield.
"We've found ourselves five, six deep at that spot with a lot of competition," Corrigan says. "I think we're going to be better there, more versatile."
Beyond their typical stalwart defense, the biggest advantage Notre Dame takes into 2011 is a wealth of experience and leadership.
"It's not one guy out there trying to fire up the troops every day; it's a bunch of guys." Corrigan says. "We've got 15 seniors and 12 juniors. That's 27 guys that have been through an awful lot in our program and know what we expect and what we want and know what they want for themselves and from themselves."
With so many upperclassmen, Notre Dame can approach 2011 with the resolve and measured determination of a squad that has been through the ringer and knows how to get the job done.
"Clearly our first game against Duke is one that we really want to work on and hopefully win," Brenneman says of the championship rematch scheduled for Feb. 20 in Jacksonville, Fla (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET). "That would be a big way to start off our season.
"We're not going to look past anyone," he says. "We have a tough schedule. We're just going to take every game for what it is."
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