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Irish anxious to begin road to the Final Four

Andy Troeger | Thursday, November 13, 2003

The last time the Michigan soccer team came to South Bend, Notre Dame was ranked No. 2 in the country, had not lost a game, and was rolling along with a 10 game shutout streak.

Now the Wolverines are back, along with Oakland and Loyola (Ill.), to join the Irish for first and second round NCAA Tournament games at Alumni Field. Oakland and Michigan will kick off the action at 4:30 p.m. Friday, with Loyola and Notre Dame scheduled for 7 p.m. The winners of those two games will return at 1 p.m. on Sunday to try to advance to the third round.

Things have changed greatly for the Irish and Wolverines heading into this weekend’s action. The Irish no longer seem invincible, having lost two of their last three games. Michigan earned their way into the NCAA Tournament with the win in South Bend, combined with a strong run to the championship match of the Big Ten Tournament.

Neither team can be worried about each other yet, however, because Loyola and Oakland come into the tournament with some impressive credentials of their own. Loyola is the champion of the Horizon League, while Oakland took the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament. Oakland beat Michigan 1-0 in an early season game, and they also knocked off No. 11 Illinois in their first game of the season.

The Irish face a number of questions heading into the NCAA Tournament. The team that dominated during its first 19 games has suddenly struggled in its last three.

Senior leader Amy Warner was injured in the Big East quarterfinal against Miami, and it is not certain when she will return. Given that a loss could knock the Irish out of the tournament, there is no guarantee that she will be able to return in time.

Despite all of that, coach Randy Waldrum feels like his team will have the answers this weekend.

“One of the things we haven’t been able to do is have a good week of practice,” Waldrum said. “We’ve been playing too many games and that has been a little bit of the problem. We’ve had two great days of training, the best we’ve had in a long time. We want them to just go out and relax and just play and for them to enjoy it really.”

Waldrum also refused to look ahead to potential matchups further along in the tournament.

“It’s nice to see that the committee rewarded us for the whole season and not just the last two weeks,” he said. “We tend to look at potential matchups. That’s nice, but you’re in trouble if you look at it that way. We want to be totally focused on Friday night’s game. The benefit is that as long as we’re winning we’ll be at home.”

The Irish will be looking for increased production up front, including the possibility that Amy Warner might be able to return for a Sunday game if the Irish win Friday.

“She’s hoping to be ready this weekend, although it is a good possibility that it wouldn’t be until the following weekend,” Waldrum said.

In Warner’s absence, the Irish will still be looking for someone to create goal-scoring chances. Waldrum feels his team is up to the challenge, however.

“We have to find a player up front that wants to play. A couple haven’t gotten the job done,” Waldrum said. “Maggie Manning and Lizzie Reed have looked good this week, and it was Mary Boland’s first game back last weekend. I think she just really needed to have the week of training.”

Even after the past two weeks, the Irish have the same goals that they had a few weeks ago.

“Without a doubt we have enough talent to win it all,” Waldrum said. “Like the other teams in the tournament, we have to try to put a good run together. It takes four games to get [to the Final Four] and then two to win it.”

The journey starts Friday night.