Nothing Lax about It

Despite the elements, a monumental men’s lacrosse game brought out the tailgaters and turned up the intensity in the stands.

Author: Greg McKenna ’23

Nd Lacrosse 1 Nathanial George Chris Kavanaugh’s prowess could not power Notre Dame past Virginia, but an electric atmosphere lit up Arlotta Stadium. Photography by Nathanial George

It’s 10:30 a.m., and the tailgaters are out.

The families of Ron Blake and Tom Gorman have been to plenty of Notre Dame football games down the years, so they’re no amateurs. They eventually take their white tent down — they’re tired of grabbing it as it threatens to blow away in 20-mile-per-hour winds — but they’re well stocked with all the essentials. (They kindly offer a sandwich and a beer, which is politely declined.)

The decor is fitting, too. On the main table, the group proudly displays a Notre Dame flag and a replica golden helmet.

A lacrosse helmet.

Puffing on a cigar, (non-alcoholic) beer in hand, Gorman reveals that he and Blake are both not alumni. Gorman’s son, Bennett, however, played his high school lacrosse just north of Chicago at Loyola Academy, where he was coached by Robert Snyder, who starred for the Irish lacrosse team from 1991-94. (Snyder’s coach at Notre Dame, Kevin Corrigan, is still patrolling the Irish sideline. In his 35th season, Corrigan is the longest-tenured active head coach in college lacrosse.)

Bennett explains that his love for Notre Dame lacrosse was cemented when Snyder would bring him and his teammates to South Bend for games. A large contingent from Snyder’s current Loyola team is also in attendance Saturday, some wearing Notre Dame hats along with their team jackets.

Bennett went on to play at Division III John Carroll University from 2017-21 with Blake’s son, Skyler, who grew up playing with Irish senior midfielder Nick Harris in Dublin, Ohio.

Another group of tailgaters in the lot adjacent to Frank Eck Baseball Stadium, meanwhile, also brave the sub-40 temperatures and freezing rain, some with just thin sweatshirts and baseball caps.

Notre Dame sophomores Charlie Schmidt and Josh Moeller, both residents of Morrissey Manor, admit they haven’t attended a Notre Dame lacrosse game before. The showdown between the No. 1-ranked Fighting Irish men’s team and No. 3 Virginia on Saturday, March 25, however, is the perfect pretense for what they term a “chili-gate.” One crockpot of homemade chili is already on the table, and Schmidt says they have two more in the trunk of their car. Two friends have already joined them, and they’re hoping for about 20 more.

“I don’t know much about lacrosse,” Moeller says.

“It’s an excuse to eat chili,” adds Schmidt, who says they’ve cooked about four pounds of meat.

Whether devoted Irish lacrosse fans or first-timers, most of the announced crowd of 3,095 pack Arlotta Stadium because they know games this big don’t come around often. Undefeated Notre Dame recently ascended to the top of both major polls for the first time since 2017. And Virginia has been the country’s top-ranked team for most of the season.

Nd Lacrosse 3 Nathanial George

“All the stops”

For Blake and Gorman, who both live within two hours of South Bend, the commute is little obstacle. (Later, in the line for the bathroom, another man explains he is not as lucky. He and his family left Milwaukee at midnight Saturday, grabbing a few hours of sleep in Valparaiso before making it to Notre Dame just in time for the noon start.)

Given that some people were seen crossing Twyckenham Drive toward Arlotta as early as 9:30 a.m., it’s no surprise that the bleachers behind Notre Dame’s bench are filling up over 45 minutes before game time. Walking from the parking lots, fans are greeted by a crew of three people playing the bagpipes in highland dress, all hired by the athletic department to add to the atmosphere.

Inside the stadium, “Got it on Me” by the late American rapper Pop Smoke plays as the Irish warm up. In the press box, Robby Hamman of Notre Dame athletics asks if the music can be turned up. He’s informed that the speakers are already on full blast.

About 20 minutes before game time, sophomore Colin Mahoney, on duty as the leprechaun mascot, is already leading the crowd in chants of “Let’s go Irish!”

Mahoney, from Omaha, Nebraska, has grandparents and several other family members who went to Virginia and are watching on TV. He notes the crowd is ready to go after the University-provided free Dave’s Hot Chicken and Under Armour t-shirts to many who arrived early, among other giveaways.

“They’re pulling out all the stops for this game,” Mahoney says, “because they know how much it means to the team.”

Just with their eyes, seniors John Brach ’23 and Brock Hurst ’23 can separately confirm the attendance records — it’s the biggest crowd at Arlotta during their time at Notre Dame. Brach, of South Bend, and Hurst, of Chesterton, Indiana, both say Saturday is reminiscent of memorable clashes with Duke and North Carolina they attended while in high school.

They say those games, however, were played in much nicer conditions. Even in the spring, fellow senior Tommy Gallagher ’23 notes Notre Dame fans aren’t able to escape the “football weather.”

Finally, it’s time for both teams to reemerge from the locker rooms. Per custom for any Notre Dame home game, the stadium announcer informs the crowd: “Here come the Irish!”

Unlike in Notre Dame Stadium, however, the crowd does not start bouncing to “Shipping Up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys.

Instead, there’s more bagpipes.

Graduate student defenseman Brian Tevlin and junior defenseman Ross Burgmaster lead the Irish onto the field, their teammates rushing past them, roaring, as the pair play the anthem most associated with the instrument, “Scotland the Brave.”

It’s a program tradition that goes back over 25 years. When they’re finished, Tevlin and Burgmaster embrace.


“Look at who scores first”

As Virginia’s Petey LaSalla and Notre Dame’s Will Lynch start proceedings in the face-off circle, students continue to trickle in. At this point, it’s standing room only, so many decide to populate the grassy knoll opposite the bleachers.

Sophomores Andrew Lauerman and Ryan Bencivengo are among those already hopping, hands in pockets, to stay warm. Lauerman complains the wind is blowing the rain into their faces, but he admits you couldn’t ask for a better view of the field just a few yards away.

Lauerman and Bencivengo are both excited to see fellow Baumer Hall resident and sophomore Chris Kavanagh, Notre Dame’s leading goal scorer, in action.

“What number is he?” Bencivengo asks Lauerman.

“I don’t know,” admits Lauerman. It’s probably whoever scores first, he answers, half-kidding.

Chris, No. 50, does get the game’s first goal, assisted by No. 51 — his brother, Pat Kavanaugh ’23. (Pat leads the Irish in points and assists and was a finalist last year for the Tewaaraton Award, the Heisman Trophy of college lacrosse.)

“What did I tell you?” Lauerman roars. “Look at who scores first!”

Virginia, however, scores the game’s next five goals. Graduate student midfielder Jeff Conner gives the ’Hoos a 2-1 lead midway through the first quarter. Jeff’s brother, 21-year-old Ryan, shows off an outfit of custom apparel before the game. Jeff’s No. 4 is emblazoned in orange on the side of Ryan’s hat. He also lifts up his sweatshirt to flash a ’Hoos jersey with his brother’s number, which he says he does every time Jeff scores.

Ryan proves it when Jeff nets his seventh goal of the season.

“Go ’Hoos!” Ryan shouts, even louder than he was during warmups. He and his father, also Jeff, are enjoying their first visit to South Bend.


Party at Arlotta

Notre Dame makes a late run before halftime to get the Irish crowd back into it. (Senior attackman Jake Taylor, making his first start since tearing his ACL in the summer, scores with 21 seconds left in the half to make it 7-5 Virginia.)

Just before the start of the second half, Notre Dame gets an additional jolt of momentum. The football team arrives straight from its practice in the neighboring Irish Athletic Center. Head coach Marcus Freeman, tiptoeing in clean white sneakers, leads his players, still in their gold football pants and blue t-shirts, out onto the now-muddy knoll.

A party commences.

Sophomore defensive lineman Jason Onye rips off his shirt. Several teammates join him, while others are content waving just their white towels. When Chris Kavanaugh again opens the scoring in the second half, the football team erupts, almost looking primed to rush the field. Sophomore wide receiver Jayden Thomas sprints deliriously up and down the sideline.

“When they stepped on this field . . . as we started the third quarter,” analyst Paul Carcaterra says of the football team on ESPNU’s broadcast, “you just felt, ‘Oh boy.’ The atmosphere went from electric to berserk.”

It only intensifies when Pat Kavanaugh draws a flag for a Virginia slashing penalty. The football team swarms near the scene of the infraction as Chris Kavanaugh endures a couple hard swipes to the face while continuing to chase after the ground ball, causing some brief pushing and shoving.

Pat ties the game on the ensuing man-up opportunity. Onye whips his shirt at the lacrosse balls sitting along the sidelines. Graduate student safety Cam Hart is also near the front of the celebrations, squatting and hoisting a lacrosse stick horizontally above his head with both hands.

As the rain turns to snow, however, Virginia regains control with a 6-2 run to close the quarter. The football team, some of whom are given blankets, eventually depart, though Freeman does an interview with Carcaterra and Chris Cotter on the ESPNU broadcast.

Even as Virginia cruises to a 15-10 victory, many fans stay until the final whistle. Inside a quiet locker room postgame, Corrigan calmly accepts the loss and lauds the “terrific” atmosphere in poor conditions.

“It was great,” he says. “We had everything we wanted.”

Notre Dame players undress, but their job is not over.

Over a dozen youth lacrosse players are in line near the locker room, waiting for autographs.

Greg McKenna is the editor-in-chief of Scholastic. He studies history, economics and journalism at Notre Dame. An incoming intern at The Boston Globe, he’s also worked for the Tampa Bay Times and South Bend Tribune