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Notre Dame defenseman Marco Napolitano lurks over Virginia attackman Payton Cormier during a game in Charlottesville, Va.

Brains of the Operation: Napolitano Carves Out Important Role on Notre Dame D

May 24, 2024
Justin Feil
Mike Tripp/Sideline Media Production

Marco Napolitano already had won before Notre Dame captured its first NCAA men’s lacrosse championship last year.

The Fighting Irish defenseman received the Elite 90 Award at the walkthrough before their semifinal win over Virginia preceded their historic title win over Duke. The Elite 90 Award goes to the student-athlete at each championship site with the highest cumulative GPA.

“I had no idea that the award was even a thing,” said Napolitano, who graduated magna cum laude with a 3.94 GPA and degree in biological sciences after being on the Dean’s List seven times. “All of a sudden, my name’s getting called. I had literally zero clue. So that was definitely a huge surprise.”

Napolitano is focused on repeating again, but not as Elite 90 winner. He wasn’t nominated this year as a graduate student in Notre Dame’s one-year master of science in management program. The team title is his sole focus in what will be his final weekend of lacrosse before starting medical school at USC in August.

Top-seeded Notre Dame (14-1) takes on fifth-seeded Denver (13-3) at noon Saturday in the first men’s semifinal at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The championship is 1 p.m. Monday.

“We definitely know what it takes,” Napolitano said. “We know the logistics of it and everything. Right now, we're looking at the Pioneers and then hopefully once we get through them, we can finish it off Monday. We’re going to be leaning on our experience and the older guys that we have.”

Napolitano’s experience is an important piece of Notre Dame’s somewhat overshadowed defense. He is in his second year starting for a close defense that features fellow graduate student Chris Conlin and freshman Shawn Lyght in front of senior goalie Liam Entenmann.

“I think Marco has been on a trajectory for a long time,” Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said. “The final piece was the confidence in his decision making. He’s been great, decisive, communicating better because of that, and really it’s just made a big difference in upping his game.

“But also he’s helping out with a young defense around him in a lot of ways especially with Shawn and even some of the sophomores we have playing important roles for us as d-middies and short-stick d-middies. That jump has been something that has magnified itself because of his impact on those guys.”

Napolitano isn’t the biggest name at the defensive end. Lyght was named a USILA second-team All-American and Conlin was honorable mention. Entenmann was named Ensign C. Markland Kelly Jr. Outstanding Goalie for the second straight season.

“We have so much confidence in Liam from about anywhere above 12 yards,” Napolitano said. “We know that he's basically going to save way more of those than he should. It allows us to play free, cover up the inside and then force guys to bad angles from the outside. He allows us to do our thing because he's stopping everything, which is just so freeing as a defense.”

Notre Dame doesn’t have the sort of established shutdown defender it had last year after Chris Fake graduated, but the Fighting Irish have been effective nonetheless. At first glance, Notre Dame’s 28.0 percent defensive efficiency according to Lacrosse Reference is ranked just 22nd. But when the strength of their opponents’ offenses is factored in, the opponent-adjusted metric drops to 24.3 percent, tops in the country.

“It's just kind of been a defense by committee if you will, and leaning on all of our strengths that we have,” Napolitano said. “That's how we've been able to work around losing a guy like Fake.”

Conlin’s return to school for the second semester to play out his final year of eligibility was a boost. The Holy Cross transfer spent the fall semester working a finance job in New York after helping Notre Dame to the title last year, and his return was a surprise.

“I heard that he was coming back while I was vacationing in Mexico,” Napolitano said. “I was sitting in a lawn chair and I thought someone was pranking me.”

Conlin matches up well on more physical attackmen, and his experience is a huge plus. Lyght, a New Jersey product like Conlin, has quickness and strength to stay with many of the top attackmen. He’s become a more proven defenseman with each week, and Napolitano has no worries about how he’ll perform this weekend in his first final four.

“He has the soul of a much older player and person than he actually is,” Napolitano said. “He's been super poised throughout our playoffs.”

Napolitano has kept his role in Notre Dame’s scheme. He usually matches up with off-ball attackmen like Virginia’s Peyton Cormier or Duke’s Dylan Williams.

“I've definitely been able to be more of a facilitator and a guy that can organize the defense from the inside out,” Napolitano said. “My role hasn't changed much. My confidence has gone up from last year to this year.”

Napolitano has felt it through this year’s tournament. Notre Dame assistant coach Ryan Wellner described Napolitano as looking white as a ghost before last year’s NCAA quarterfinals. Until last year, Napolitano had limited playing experience, but he used every chance he got.

“I was on man down my sophomore and my junior year, so that definitely made it really easy for me to stay engaged,” Napolitano said. “I went in basically every game.”

Napolitano otherwise sat behind some outstanding defenders. Then last year he took advantage of his opportunity to start, and he has built on it this year.

“He kept a great attitude,” Corrigan said. “He’s a kid that understands that you have to work for things, and if they don’t come to you right away, you don’t stop working. He's going to be a doctor. He’s going to med school next year. He understands the long game, that you have to put the time in and the work in.”

Napolitano has big plans beyond chasing a second straight national title this weekend. He’ll start medical school in August at USC in his home state of California. He aspires to be an orthopedic surgeon, an aspiration he formed while interning for Michael Hannon, a former Notre Dame player.

“I really fell in love with the specialty a few summers ago while I was interning with them and that's been the plan ever since — to go into ortho and work with as many players and athletes as possible,” Napolitano said. “It's a pretty good connection with sports and orthopedics.”

He will gain some hands-on experience when he travels with Notre Dame teammates Max Manyak and Nick Harris and Hannon and Hannon’s wife on a week-long medical mission to Honduras through One World Surgery at the end of July. They will offer medical assistance in the days to an orphanage that houses more than 400 children, and Napolitano also hopes in the evenings to introduce them to the sport that has helped shape his college experience and his future plans.

“We're going to be working with children, maybe bring a couple lacrosse sticks down there and just kind of make their lives better in any way that we can,” he said. “It's going to be a lot of surgery and then helping around the orphanage when we can. It should be awesome. I can't wait.”