After beating Notre Dame earlier in the season, the Michigan women’s lacrosse team will look to do so again — this time with its season on the line.
The Wolverines earned an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament, qualifying for the second time in the program’s nine-year history. They will play the Fighting Irish on Friday in a rematch of a statement win by Michigan earlier in the season.
Earning a spot in the 29-team field was no guarantee for the Wolverines. After starting the season 7-0, they struggled in conference play and limped to a 2-4 record that wasn’t enough to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament. Despite the late-season skid, they had enough quality wins to make it out of the bubble as one of the last four in.
Despite being a bubble team, Michigan has the players, cohesiveness and skill to win multiple games in the postseason. Here’s what that would take:
The biggest struggle for the Wolverines this season has been consistency. In home losses to Denver, Southern California and Ohio State, they played anywhere from one to three periods of good lacrosse — but never all four. Whether it be slow starts, easing up too soon or just flat-out exhaustion, competing for fewer than the full 60 minutes led to many of Michigan’s losses in games it should have won. If it can play at its best for the entire game, a win will move closer within the Wolverines’ grasp.
When it comes to gameplay, there are a few things that Michigan has done well all season that it must continue to do. Controlling possessions has been a key to its success this year, and the Wolverines need to keep winning themselves that advantage on the draw control. When they do win the draw control — frequently through the hands of senior midfielder Kaitlyn Mead — they’re often able to get a quick goal or set the pace for the next few minutes of play.
When Michigan doesn’t have the ball, its defense has also been a strong suit, although the numbers on paper look better than in reality. The Wolverines rank eighth in scoring defense while graduate goalkeeper Arielle Weissman, a Tewaaraton Award nominee, ranks fourth in goals-against average and fifth in save percentage in Division I lacrosse. When Michigan’s defense plays at its best with forced shot clock violations and forced turnovers to limit its opponent’s shots, the unit looks powerful. When it doesn’t, Weissman can only do so much against a high number of shots on goal.
With the game likely to be tense, the Wolverines can’t afford a high number of yellow cards — something that plagued them in multiple games this season. When they provide their opponents with extra-person opportunities, their opponents frequently capitalize on almost all of them. Avoiding having to play a person down will be critical for Michigan to limit the number of easy goals it allows.
Against the Irish, the Wolverines hope to repeat their performance from February, when they upset then-No. 5 Notre Dame, 11-7. In that road win, Michigan led the scoring in three out of four periods despite Notre Dame leading in shots and draw controls.
The Irish both score more goals and allow more goals than Michigan on average, but the team that plays its game best will likely prevail. If Notre Dame capitalizes on scoring opportunities and has a strong offensive performance it will likely win, but if the Wolverines play clean and solid defense the game is theirs for the taking. It’s a clash of two strengths that will surely result in fireworks.
Irish midfielder Kasey Choma and attacker Madison Ahern lead their team in scoring with 57 and 56 goals, respectively, and Michigan’s defense will have its work cut out for it stopping them. At least one of the two has netted a hat trick in four of Notre Dame’s last five games, and the duo has earned numerous accolades over the course of the season.
The Wolverines have the skill to string together multiple postseason wins, but before they start thinking about the second round of the tournament, they have to beat the Irish for the second time this season. They’ve proven capable of doing so, but they’re going to have to break away from the inconsistencies and mistakes that have plagued them during the second half of the season.
And whether or not Michigan can do that will determine where its season ends.