Saving best for last at Notre Dame

John Kemp has a 7.65 goals-against average and a .523 save percentage for No. 2 Notre Dame (9-2). Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics

s the final evening hours slowly faded into the night, many families in the Bethesda, Md., suburb of Potomac were nearly ready to climb into their beds as another day of work and school awaited. At the Kemp household, though, days that started shortly after 4 a.m. were far from over.

The days would start with Bob Kemp's alarm clock going off at 4:12 -- a time one of his daughters picked because 4:10 "was too early" and 4:15 "was too late" -- so he could get two of his three girls to American University in D.C. by 4:45 a.m. for the morning session of their two-a-day swim practices.

By the time he got home, his wife, Cheryl, was getting the boys ready for school. Soon, they too would be out the door, leaving Bob the task of heading back to American to pick up the girls and drop them off at their schools.

After taking care of a laundry list of family errands while the children were at school, Cheryl was ready to hop into the family's 16-passenger van and shuttle kids to and from swimming, lacrosse, hockey and any other sports they were playing that season.

"My mom used to always say, 'Make sure you have your backpack,'" says Joey Kemp, the family's fifth of seven children and second-youngest son.

"If you got that comment ... you'd definitely be waiting a couple hours [for someone] to come pick you up," said John Kemp, a senior goaltender at Notre Dame and the family's youngest, on the need to get a jump on the night's homework while waiting for a ride home and the start of the 8 p.m. family dinner that preceded any leftover studying.

Being the baby of the family was a mixed bag for John. It included nearly always getting hand-me-downs and being the test subject for his older brothers' newest wrestling moves.

"I was standing on the armrest of the couch, and they did a choke slam down onto the couch," he says with a chuckle, "and believe it or not, I think I had a concussion when it happened."

Being the youngest was also how John found his calling in lacrosse.

• • • • •

When C.J. Kemp, the family's third child and the second-oldest brother, transferred to Mater Dei School in fifth grade, he decided to trade in his baseball bat for a lacrosse stick because it was the sport everybody played at his new school. He earned the starting goalie position that year, and when the time came, Joey followed C.J.'s path to the cage. Those steps would wind up being traced one more time when John began playing the sport in the first grade.

"John kinda had no choice," says Joey.

Having to pay tuition for the kids' Catholic schools was the major reason, their father says, that John found himself between the pipes.

"The only stick we had was a goalie's stick -- and we had a lot of 'em -- so because we were paying all those tuitions, my wife said, 'We don't need to buy any other stick other than a goalie's stick,'" Bob says. "It ended up being the only stick in the house and, John being the caboose, he wanted to play lacrosse, he got handed a goalie's stick."

So John, sporting pads he wore playing forward in hockey, would take his goalie stick, trot out to the lacrosse net in the family's backyard and take target practice for Joey. These backyard sessions were some of John's earliest lacrosse experiences and served as the only times Joey could get a feel for what it was like not being on the receiving end of a shot.

By the time he was old enough, John started attending a local youth lacrosse camp led by his older brothers' high school coach, Kevin Giblin. Although John didn't know it at the time, he would learn that playing for Giblin through the camp would open doors for him.

One of Giblin's longtime friends is Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan. It wasn't long until the two were discussing John's future.

"From the time John was probably in, shoot, eighth grade -- seventh, eighth grade -- Kevin Giblin started telling me, 'Hey, I think John may end up being the best one of the whole group,'" Corrigan says.

This was high praise, as Corrigan had recently spent a scholarship on Joey to man the Fighting Irish's cage.

As John continued to grow in and out of the net, Corrigan's interest did as well. So much so that the coach entered relatively uncharted water. At the time, recruiting high school sophomores was almost unheard of -- especially when that sophomore hadn't started a game yet. It wasn't until his junior year that John was able to overtake Villanova recruit Dan Gutierrez for the Georgetown Prep starting spot.

"We were going to take a goalie in the class in front of him, but we knew we wanted him and basically said to him, 'You know, no pressure, we understand if you are not ready to make a decision and we're not trying to pressure you to make a decision, but if you tell us that you want to come to Notre Dame, then we will not recruit a guy in the class in front of you,'" Corrigan says.

"At first, I was a little hesitant," says John. "I hadn't really thought about college. I hadn't even started a lacrosse game in high school."

To help find his way through the recruiting process, John turned to his family and Giblin. After a little guidance, John realized the decision to play in South Bend was "pretty much a no-brainer."

• • • • •

With fall ball underway, John's freshman year was supposed to be a learning one with redshirt senior and returning starter Scott Rodgers coming off a season in which he was named a third-team All-American. The plan was for Rodgers to play out his final year of eligibility while John would redshirt.

That all changed six games into the season.

On March 27, 2010, eighth-ranked Notre Dame hosted Rutgers. The tide turned in the second quarter as unranked Rutgers flipped a 1-0 deficit into a 5-2 advantage and an injured Rodgers left the game with 3:32 to go in the half. At the time, it wasn't clear if he would be able to return. Not wanting to burn Kemp's redshirt year, Corrigan called on Brendan Moore to finish the quarter.

Trailing 5-3 at halftime, Corrigan learned that Rodgers was done for the next handful of weeks because of a torn hamstring. That's when he called on his future starter.

John made a couple early saves but gave up five goals before the clock reached zero. Rutgers had pulled off an upset, winning 10-8.

Back in Potomac, Bob Kemp -- a regular at Notre Dame games despite John not playing -- was finishing mowing the yard.

"I came inside, and I went on the computer to look to see what the score was," Bob says, "and when I saw the score and it said 'John Kemp in goal,' of course I couldn't believe it."

"My dad has missed one game in my whole career, and it was that first game," John says of his father's decision to stay home that weekend while trying to financially juggle attending John's games and sister Elizabeth's final swim meets as a captain at Florida.

Corrigan kept the freshman in net for most of the next three games -- a span in which the team went 1-2. Following an 11-3 win over Georgetown in early April, Rodgers was ready to take the field again, and Corrigan was forced to choose. He gave the nod to John, but the 5-foot-9, 170-pound freshman wouldn't see another second of playing time that season.

It was 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 22 -- the night before Notre Dame was to travel to Queens, N.Y., and take on St. John's -- when the phone rang at the Kemps' home in Potomac. Bob answered, but his son wanted to talk to his mother.

"I woke up with a huge stomachache, and I couldn't really move," says John.

Cheryl, a nurse, rattled off a series of questions and told John to head to the on-campus infirmary and call back after he was examined. About two hours later, the phone rang again. It was the doctor on call, who told the Kemps that John's appendix had to be removed.

John's roommate drove him to nearby South Bend Memorial Hospital, while back home Bob was booking the first flight he could to Indiana. Somewhere between 2 and 3 a.m., John had surgery. When Bob arrived at John's hospital room around noon the next day, he found Corrigan's wife, Lis, sitting with John and a four-inch scar on his son's stomach.

"Kind of by default, he inherited the [starting goalie] position and it kind of became his to lose and he didn't have a chance to lose it on the field; he lost it on the operating table," Bob says, laughing.

There was a silver lining, however. Several weeks after the surgery, John got the go-ahead to dress for the team's final game of the season, a 7-5 loss to Duke for the national title.

• • • • •

Now a senior, John is staring down one last opportunity to hoist the trophy that has eluded him and his teammates.

"You can probably count on two fingers the number of times that somebody's won a national championship without their goalie being a central reason why, so he's critical," says Corrigan.

John says he's up for the challenge. Last year, he led the nation in goals-against average and save percentage.

"He has an ability to make saves look easy that sometimes we don't even notice it in the game, and it'll be Monday morning when we're watching film and we'll be like, 'Oh my Lord, how did he get a piece of that ball?'" Corrigan says.

For his efforts, Kemp earned first-team All-American honors. The achievement was just another notch in the Kemps' athletic belt. Bob played football at William and Mary for Marv Levy and Lou Holtz. Two of John's sisters were All-Americans in swimming, and Elizabeth won a national championship in her senior year. Joey was a first-team All-American as a senior at Notre Dame, and C.J. became Fairfield's first lacrosse player to receive All-America recognition when he earned an honorable mention in 2002.

Sibling rivalries are bound to exist in any family. With how successful the Kemp boys have been, it's no wonder that one of theirs is lacrosse.

"After a bad game, boy, they hear it from each other more than they hear it from me or anybody else," says Corrigan.

Following a subpar performance earlier this year, John heard it. When he got to his phone he found a text from Joey with some "helpful" tips. John, though, was quick with a response.

"He said, 'Well, it might mean something coming from someone who was a first[-team] All-American as a junior, not a senior like you were,'" says Joey.

Just like in the backyard when they were growing up, the little brother made another save.

Devon Heinen is a production assistant at ESPN.