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Irish refocused to begin NCAA tournament

Matt Mooney | Friday, November 12, 2004

Short-term memories are at a premium as national fourth seed Notre Dame (19-1-1) kicks off its first game of the NCAA tournament tonight at Alumni Field at 7:30 p.m. against Eastern Illinois (13-5-2).

The Irish enter the 64-team tournament having just blemished their perfect record after losing the Big East Championship game to Connecticut 2-1 on Sunday. The loss conjured up memories of the end of the 2003 season when the Irish lost three of their last five games. Notre Dame fell in the Big East semifinal to Boston College and then was bounced out of the second-round of the NCAA tournament by Michigan in a 1-0 upset. The pain from those losses still lingers, but has also taught valuable lessons to players and coaches alike.

“We can’t look ahead,” coach Randy Waldrum said. “This week we have not even talked about the other two teams that are here this weekend. Everything has been focused on Eastern [Illinois]. I think maybe that’s where we failed a little bit as a staff last year and as players, trying to look ahead and who you may get down the road.”

Senior Kate Tulisiak feels the scars from the loss are nothing if not motivational.

“We’ll never forget about losing in the second round last year and we don’t want that to happen again,” she said. “That’s constantly running through our minds. It’ll stick with us and help us to play harder so it won’t happen again.”

Eastern Illinois, a team familiar with playing in South Bend, will be first to test that commitment. Notre Dame hosted the Panthers in its second game of the season, a contest the Irish won easily by a 3-0 margin. Eastern Illinois struggled against the Notre Dame back line and only managed one shot-on-goal. Meanwhile, the Irish offense piled up 23 shots on goal as Candace Chapman, Jen Buczkowski and Annie Schefter all scored a goal apiece.

But for some players, the early season is a distant memory compared to where they are now.

“A game like Eastern Illinois was so long ago that we kind of forget,” Schefter said. “Honestly, it’s kind of like we never really played them. I couldn’t tell you who we played three weeks ago.”

As for the present, the four teams playing in South Bend have a higher combined win total than any other site. Waldrum refuses to underestimate any team, regardless of previous matchups.

“Obviously they went on to have a pretty good year again, winning their conference. The one thing that we’ve tried to emphasize to the kids is that they’ve now been in the tournament four years in a row,” he said. “Each year you’re in it you gain more experience, and you learn to handle it a little bit better. I don’t think it’s going to be that easy of a time for us.”

Now that the Irish are entering their last stage of the season, there is a tension as players try to stay focused in the present while still maintaining the drive to achieve their larger goals.

“We knew that we would have a team that was qualified and capable of winning a title,” Schefter said. “Pieces are fitting together and if it doesn’t end up that [we win a championship] everyone will be very disappointed.”

Meanwhile, the coaches continue to stress that the focus must remain on the game at hand to prevent a letdown similar to the 2003 postseason.

“We just have to take each game and go from there, win each game and keep going,” Tulisiak said. “Coach is always saying that, every practice, every game, all the time. It’s always running through our heads.”

The winner of tonight’s game will advance to the second round on Sunday against the winner of the Dayton-Wisconsin game. The first two rounds of competition for these four teams will all be played at Alumni Field.