Men's Lacrosse: Irish begin quest for Final Four
By: JOE LICANDRO
Last year, the Notre Dame men's lacrosse team shocked the lacrosse world by advancing to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in school history.
This year's Irish squad would like nothing more than to make a repeat trip to the Final Four, but the Irish know their work is cut out for them. The journey begins this Sunday when the pre-season 11th-ranked Irish host the Penn State Nittany Lions.
This year's Irish squad will have a completely different look. Gone are last year's top three leading scorers at the attack position: Tom Glatzel, David Ulrich and Todd Ulrich. The Irish also must somehow figure out a way to replace the leadership of midfielders Steve Bishko and Chris Young.
Replacing departed goalie Kirk Howell will not be an easy task either. Howell had been a fixture in net for the last four seasons, and his strong play was one of the primary reasons Notre Dame advanced to the Final Four last season.
While there are many question marks circling around this year's team, Irish head coach Kevin Corrigan is confident that Notre Dame will rise to the challenge.
"I think it is going to be an exciting year," said Corrigan. "I am looking forward to seeing what we can do with this group. I hope we can surprise some other people who don't think we are going to be able to rebound and have a great year on the heels of last year."
In many respects this season could be characterized as a rebuilding year because the Irish are such a young team. The Irish feature 12 sophomores and 15 freshmen on its the roster of 45.
Although there is definitely a youth movement on this year's team, senior captains John Flandina, Chad DeBolt, Devin Ryan and A.J. Wright are expected to answer many of the question marks surrounding this team. All four captains will be responsible for building team unity and cohesiveness as the season progresses.
Midfielders Flandina and Ryan are Notre Dame's top returning scorers. Flandina scored 20 goals and dished out seven assists last season. Ryan came on strong at the end of the season, and finished with 15 goals and two assists. Both players are considered leading candidates for Player of the Year honors in the Great Western Lacrosse League. Departed All-American attackman Glatzel won the coveted award last year.
The answers to many of those marks on offense could come from senior midfielder Flandina and senior attackman Devin Ryan. Junior Travis Wells, sophomores Steve Clagett and Owen Mulford, and freshmen Chris Richez and Brian Giordano are all expected to compete for playing time at the midfield positions alongside Flandina and Ryan.
"John is going to be a really important guy for us this year," said Corrigan. "He is going to get a lot more attention than he has gotten the last couple of years. Devin Ryan is certainly in the mix as well. We really value guys who can play at both ends of the field at the midfield position. Owen Mulford, Steve Clagett and Travis Wells are all capable of doing that. We also have a couple of young guys Chris Richez and Brian Giordano who are going to play some as well."
Strong defense has been the trademark of Notre Dame lacrosse under Corrigan, and this year is no different. With the Irish having to replace their entire starting attack unit, the defense will set the tone early in the season. Senior captains Wright and DeBolt are expected to be this year's leaders on defense. Juniors John Souch and Eric Simon, along with sophomore Mickey Blum round out the rest of the defense.
All of these players must continue to exhibit the aggressive play they demonstrated last year in order to ease the transition for junior goalie Nick Antol to replace Howell.
Antol appears to have the inside track for the starting position right now, but he is facing stiff competition from sophomore Stewart Crosland.
Corrigan understands how crucial the defense will be for the Irish to get off to a strong start at the beginning of the year.
"The defense is going to be extremely important," said Corrigan. We are going to have to play good defense to keep ourselves in position to win early in the year and allow our offense to develop without the pressure of having to come from behind."
Heading into the season, Notre Dame's offense appears to be the team's biggest concern. "This year, we won't have as many proven weapons as we go into the season so we will want to be a little more deliberate about our approach," said Corrigan. "We are not going to play slow-down but it may take us longer to generate the opportunities like we did last year. We are going to have to be patient and smart about what we are doing."
This year's Irish team may not feature the same players as last year's squad, but their goal remains the same.
The road back to the Final Four begins Sunday at 1 p.m when Notre Dame takes on Penn State.
All Sports Stories for Thursday, February 21, 2002