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Repeating as champion not such an easy task

Bobby Griffin | Friday, November 11, 2005

History is not on their side.

Notre Dame will begin defense of its 2004 National Championship tonight when it hosts Valparaiso. If the Irish win back-to-back titles, they will be the first Notre Dame team to do so since men’s fencing did it in the late 1970s, and only the second team since a guy named Leahy did it 1946 and 1947.

Think about that. For all of Notre Dame’s storied athletic history, only two teams in the last 58 years have managed to win two consecutive championships – and for good reason. It’s hard.

College programs are faced with the reality that players come and go every year. The experienced athletes on the field one year are the inexperienced law students in the classroom the next.

The window of success is narrow. Universities realistically have two years with a specific group of players before there is a turnover.

“By the time it seems like you really get everybody playing on the same page they graduate,” Irish coach Randy Waldrum said. “That’s why its so vital to get the depth in your program that we’ve been fortunate to have the last two or three years.”

Consider the 2005 North Carolina basketball team. Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants came in as freshmen and struggled. After two years of coaching and development they won a title in their junior year.

What happened next? The Tar Heels are not ranked in the preseason polls after their top six players graduated or left for the NBA.

Twenty years ago it was easier for teams to win multiple titles in women’s soccer. North Carolina won nine straight from 1986 through 1994. But women’s soccer only became an NCAA championship sport in 1982 and many universities did not support it right away.

“I think the thing with Carolina is … they really were the first team 20 years ago to put money into women’s athletics, and particularly women’s soccer,” Waldrum said.

North Carolina – while still dominant – is not the only contender anymore because of the parity that now exists. The most a school can do now is build a program. These college dynasties no longer exist.

“Now you’ve got so many teams that can win it, and you’re not going to see that kind of run again,” Waldrum said.

But that doesn’t mean the Irish do not at least have a shot at winning one more.

Freshman Kerri Hanks has 62 points (24 goals and 14 assists) and senior Katie Thorlakson has 60 points (16 goals and 28 assists) this season.

Fifth-year senior Candace Chapman has anchored a defense that has left goaltender Erika Bohn as a spectator for most of the season.

“I really haven’t had to do that much in the games so I’m just trying to stay focused if I do have to make one big save,” Bohn said.

And, perhaps most importantly, the Irish are peaking at the right time. Coming off a 5-0 Big East championship win over Connecticut, Notre Dame has won its previous 10 games, outscoring its opponents 46-1.

Not since a Sept. 30 loss at Marquette – a team the Irish beat 3-0 Nov. 4 in the Big East semifinals – have the Irish trailed in a game.

It will be difficult, but if there is a group to become the first women’s soccer team to win consecutive championships that is not Michael Jordan’s alma mater, this could be the one.

“We know what its like to lose early … and we know what it feels like to win,” Bohn said. “So we want to get that feeling back again.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Bobby Griffin at rgriffi3@nd.edu