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Forward thinking

Joe Meixell | Friday, November 11, 2005

A year ago, Katie Thorlakson had the burden of producing most of the Irish offense, Amanda Cinalli was still learning the ropes as a freshman and Kerri Hanks was playing for the United States in international competition instead of leading the Irish with 24 goals in 21 games.

Even so, Notre Dame dominated in the NCAA tournament last season and beat UCLA, 2-1 in penalty kicks, in a thrilling championship match.

This year, the trio of forwards is in full swing together, devastating opponents with the highest-scoring offense in the country heading into the tournament. They have led the Irish on the team’s current 10-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 46-1.

“I think right now we’re peaking,” Cinalli said. “I think we’re doing real well right now. Everything’s clicking and everyone’s having a blast.”

Cinalli is the lowest profiled of Notre Dame’s top three forwards, but head coach Randy Waldrum says she makes an incomparable impact on the team.

“Amanda Cinalli, who a lot of people don’t talk about, she’s a great player. And she’s one of those players who can hurt you, too,” Waldrum said. “We’ve got a lot of those weapons if we can just get them clicking at the right time.”

The other weapons Waldrum referenced are Thorlakson and Hanks.

That duo became just the fourth tandem of teammates to break 60 points each in a season Sunday during Notre Dame’s 5-0 Big East Championship victory over No. 15 Connecticut.

“Me and Hanks, actually at the beginning of the year decided we wanted to shoot for 130 points by the end of the year,” Thorlakson said.

With 24 goals and 14 assists, Hanks has 62 points, and Thorlakson’s 16 goals and 28 assists give her 60 points. Hanks said the duo knows they are approaching the benchmark.

“Obviously we set that target and we want to reach it between us,” Hanks said. “But what we’ve accomplished right now is unbelievable.”

Reaching their goals

Cinalli, who has seven goals and 15 assists on the season, said she doesn’t focus on individual statistical targets as much as team achievements.

“One of my goals is a team goal and it’s to win another national championship,” Cinalli said. “I guess you could say that every day I’ve been striving just to work really hard in practice and challenge my teammates, and they always challenge me.”

Working for that team goal has produced one of the most prolific front lines in NCAA history for the Irish this year. In just 21 games, Notre Dame’s three top forwards have combined for 151 points (47G-57A), a clip of 7.4 points per game.

Thorlakson especially has used the diversity of the Irish attack to her advantage. She has combined with Cinalli, Hanks and her other teammates for a nation-leading 28 assists this year.

The trio has taken 231 shots in those games, making the combination the country’s most feared offensive monster. Their shot total is nearly 140 more than all Irish opponents combined against Notre Dame in the 2005 season.

In fact, with 122 shots in her freshman season, Hanks has taken 30 more shots this year than all of Notre Dame’s opponents have against the Irish defense.

Hanks credited Thorlakson and Cinalli with that prolific total.

“My teammates put me in the chances that I have to take the shots,” Hanks said. “Sometimes the chances I get are just tap-ins. … Most of all it’s my teammates that help me get my chances.”

Thorlakson said Notre Dame’s overwhelming shot advantage is, in large part, a result of the defensive work of the Irish forwards.

“We have a pressure offense, so a lot of our attacks are actually when the defense is trying to get the ball out and when they’re off-balance and that provides us with more opportunities to keep the ball in their end,” she said.

Going for two

The Irish hope to maintain that decided shots-taken advantage in the NCAA Tournament when they meet Valparaiso in the first round of their title defense tonight at Alumni Field.

Cinalli said she knows there is added pressure when a team tries to repeat as national champions but said she has full faith in the Irish.

“I think our team has the composure and talent to withstand that pressure,” she said. “We’re totally confident that we’ll make it all the way this year.”

To make it all the way to the College Cup (soccer’s version of the Final Four) in College Station, Tex., the Irish must take every opponent seriously and use their experience to beat teams who have not played as many big games.

Thorlakson and Cinalli each played in all six tournament games last year while Hanks competed for the United States in international competition.

Thorlakson, a member of the Canadian national team, said Hanks’ participation on national teams gives her a competitive advantage over her defenders, despite her lack of NCAA playoff experience.

“She’s just … a natural goal scorer,” the senior from British Columbia said. “She’s been playing international soccer for a long time. With that experience she’s going to be a bit more mature on the ball.”

Hanks said her international experience will help in the excited environment of tournament matches.

“I think it helps out a lot,” she said. “International level and college level are two different types of things but it does help … getting to know different styles and different players.”

Waldrum said Notre Dame’s three-pronged attack prevents defenses from focusing on just Thorlakson, the two-time Big East offensive player of the year, to shut down during games.

“I think having [Hanks and Cinalli] just makes it that much more difficult for teams because you just can’t put a focus on Katie,” he said. “You just can’t do it.”

“Everybody’s scoring”

Thorlakson said Notre Dame’s offense this year is better than last year’s.

“This year, it’s wide open – everbody’s scoring,” she said. “Obviously with 151 points between three people it’s hard to key on one person.”

Thorlakson said the development of Cinalli and Hanks as offensive stars has taken much of the offensive burden off her shoulders from a year ago, especially as the returning star on the defending national champions.

“I’m looking forward to the tournament – nothing on my shoulders,” she said.

Though teams risk leaving Cinalli and Hanks open for shots when they focus on Thorlakson, Waldrum said Notre Dame’s opponents often concentrate their attention on the senior.

“I’m amazed all the time at Thorlakson because she continues to just get marked, she continues to be the target, you know everybody’s trying to stop her and she just continues to find ways to get points,” Waldrum said. “Goals, assists, whatever it takes.”

In 2004, Thorlakson scored or assisted on 18 of Notre Dame’s 22 goals in the postseason, including a goal or an assist in each of the team’s six NCAA tournament victories.

Waldrum said he doesn’t expect that kind of dominating performance from any of his players this time, only because the Irish have too many offensive weapons to keep the others from finding the net.

“Last year, [Thorlakson] felt a lot of pressure to have to be the one to come through for us. I don’t know if any one of our weapons will have [a performance like Thorlakson’s in 2004],” he said.

With 151 points spread out between three players during Notre Dame’s 19-2-0 regular season plus Big East Tournament, continuing the strategy of a diverse offense might be best for the Irish.