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ND Women’s Soccer: ND’s Big East lead not a given

Tim Dougherty | Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Despite holding the top spot in every major poll for most of the season, No. 1 Notre Dame still finds itself in a dogfight for the Big East lead.

Until Sunday’s 2-0 win over Rutgers, the Irish (6-0 Big East, 13-0 overall) trailed the Scarlet Knights (5-1-1, 11-2-1) by two points after Notre Dame’s 1-0 lead over Cincinnati two weeks ago was washed away by game-ending storms.

Currently, the Irish have earned 18 points in their six conference wins, placing them one point ahead of Villanova (5-0-2, 13-0-2) and two points ahead of Rutgers in a log jammed National Division. One slip-up in their final four games could cost Notre Dame the No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament; a small margin of error considering the Irish hit the road for the remainder of the season – a place where “anything can happen,” according to coach Randy Waldrum. On the docket this Friday for the Irish is perennial power Connecticut (4-3 Big East – second-place American division) in addition to Villanova next Friday.

“We told the girls Sunday [before Rutgers], we have a real crucial stretch,” Waldrum said. “If you don’t beat the teams right there with you, you have no wiggle room to win out. We’ve got two more real difficult games. Clearly we’re not home free by any stretch of the imagination.”

Though Connecticut is floating at .500 with a 7-7-1 record this season, three of those losses came to No. 2 North Carolina, No. 3 Santa Clara and No. 4 UCLA.

“They played an incredibly difficult schedule early,” Waldrum said. “They stumbled in a couple of games they should have won. They haven’t gotten a fast start out of the gate. Losing big games early in the year and having a glitch in games they should have won set them back a little bit.”

The Huskies’ Big East struggles also may be evidence of what Waldrum believes to be a conference much stronger from top to bottom compared to last year’s group. In the league’s first year of expansion, four of 16 teams made the 2005 NCAA Tournament, as nine Big East teams finished outside the Top 100 RPI.

“Certainly the Big East is much improved this year,” he said. “Cincinnati is a much better team. Louisville has stepped up this year. South Florida is over .500 this year. Those teams may have needed a year to adjust to the conference, and they’ve made some strides.”

Waldrum and Rutgers coach Glenn Crooks agree that Notre Dame, No. 7 West Virginia, No. 22 Rutgers and No. 13 Villanova have put themselves in good position to make the NCAA Tournament. Additionally, No. 17 Louisville continues to stick around in the top 30, even though, like Rutgers, the Cardinals have yet to beat a ranked opponent.

“Rutgers and Louisville are interesting to me,” Waldrum said. “Both are getting good recognition in national polls, but they don’t have a great strength of schedule. After playing them I think they deserve to be in.”

If Connecticut or Marquette can make a late run, Crooks and Waldrum see six NCAA tournament teams coming out of the conference, which is likely to place the Big East on par with the ACC. For a conference whose league RPI ranks between second and fourth every year, Crooks believes the Big East is headed toward consistently being on the top end of that range.

“By bits and pieces I see the league improving a little bit each year,” he said. “I don’t think we compare with the ACC yet, but I think we’re comparable to any other league in the country.”

Leading the charge is Notre Dame, which has remained flawless despite playing in the National Division. The division claims four of the five teams with five or more league victories and has collectively earned 16 more points than the American Division.

Notre Dame has faced the toughest competition the conference has to offer, according to Villanova coach Ann Clifton.

“On Friday the National [teams] played the American [teams] and it was a clean sweep for the [National] division,” Clifton said. “I’m not sure the parity is there.”

The Irish are used to grueling stretch runs, according to Waldrum, who doesn’t believe a late season slip up would break his team’s focus.

“No one wants to lose, but if we did we would still have a great opportunity to host [the NCAA Tournament run] at home if we did happen to stumble along the way,” he said. “I think [the tournament committee] knows we’ve done a great body of work and I think you won’t see our demeanor change one way or another.”

So far, the Irish haven’t had to worry about that. They’ve just kept mowing down all competition, outscoring their Big East opponents 22-1 and scoring on more shots than their opponents have taken (18).

“That’s the best team we’ve played against since I’ve been at Rutgers,” said Crooks, who has faced the likes of North Carolina, Santa Clara and UCLA in his seven years with the Scarlet Knights. “The best Notre Dame team and the best team period … It’s a great group of players.”

But the Irish don’t care about what their opponents think. Or do, for that matter. As long as they win, they won’t have to look beyond the top of the rankings to find their name – an attitude sophomore Irish forward Kerri Hanks exhibited after Notre Dame’s win Sunday.

“I don’t know anything,” Hanks said. “I don’t know who’s winning or anything. I just know we have a game on Friday and then on Sunday.”