The Michigan women’s lacrosse team’s bench had a lot to celebrate. From dancing down the sidelines to hitting imaginary home runs to bending down and pretending to read newspapers, they did just that.
But none of those creative bench celebrations would’ve been possible without the Wolverines’ remarkable offensive performance.
In one of Michigan’s strongest offensive showings of the year, the No. 21 Wolverines (11-6 overall, 2-4 Big Ten) bested No. 16 Notre Dame (9-9, 3-5 Atlantic Coast Conference), 17-11, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“The offense figured it out today and they really should be commended,” Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen said. “To put up 17 goals … in the postseason was awesome.”
Those 17 goals came from seven Michigan players, six of whom tallied at least two goals on the night and four of whom recorded hat tricks. Three of the four players who scored hat tricks — senior Kaley Thompson, fifth-year senior Caitlin Muir and senior Claire Galvin — were attackers.
“That’s what we need,” Nielsen said. “And we’ve been harping on that all year, that the attackers need to produce to take the stress off the midfielders.”
The Wolverines heeded that advice against the Fighting Irish, playing a complete and consistent game on offense. They capitalized on transition opportunities, individual playmaking, interior passing and free position shots to score the highest number of goals as a team since their win against Central Michigan on March 6.
That production started early, as Michigan came out swinging from the opening whistle with three back-to-back goals. Thompson put the Wolverines on the board first after converting a forced turnover into a transition goal, before sophomore midfielder Annabelle Burke and senior midfielder Kaitlyn Mead tacked on two more points for Michigan by creating shooting space for themselves in front of the net. Already, they had set a tone.
Notre Dame was able to respond to the Wolverines’ early offensive success, scoring three consecutive goals of its own to close out the first quarter with the score knotted up. But the Michigan offense fired up even more in the second quarter, with freshman midfielder Jill Smith kicking off a six-goal period for the Wolverines, allowing them to take a 9-6 lead heading into halftime.
“Throughout the season, we’ve been relying a lot on the defense and we haven’t really been fulfilling our side of the ball,” Muir said. “So today in the postseason, we just wanted to go out there and kind of have a little bit of accountability for the defense and take a little bit off their shoulders.”
Michigan’s defense still held up its end of the bargain, playing a crucial role in the win by stifling the Fighting Irish with consistent pressure to seal off potential shooting lanes and providing a spark at times for the offense.
“The ability for the attackers to play without hesitation, and take shots and maybe make mistakes every now and again, and get the ball saved and know that it goes down the other end and comes back without a goal being scored is massive,” Nielsen said.
The Wolverines continued their offensive success in the second half, extending the lead to four goals in the third quarter before pulling further away in the fourth frame. Michigan was patient on the attack, waiting to capitalize on the best possible one-on-one opportunity or open lane to cut towards the net.
With a total of 17 goals on 30 shots, the Wolverines forced Notre Dame to switch goalkeepers in the fourth quarter. But Michigan just kept scoring, tallying two goals against the replacement goalkeeper before the Fighting Irish substituted their starter back in. Notre Dame ended the game with just three total saves.
“The Notre Dame defense is really good but everybody had hat tricks, everybody was scoring multiple goals, so who do you choose to mark up on?” Muir said. “I don’t know.”
The Wolverines did everything they needed to do on offense to beat Notre Dame — and everything they weren’t able to do against most of their Big Ten opponents in the regular season. Heading into a second-round matchup with No. 4 Northwestern, which beat Michigan 12-9 earlier in the season, the Wolverines will need to continue producing on the attack.
And if they do, the bench will have even more to celebrate.