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ND Women’s Soccer: ND ready with youth in lineup

Douglas Farmer | Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Not many teams in the country can say they are confident starting three sophomores on the field and a first-year starter in the goal as the postseason begins.

No. 4 Notre Dame (15-3-1, 10-0-1 Big East) has started at least three sophomores for the vast majority of the season, and junior goaltender Nikki Weiss is shining in her first taste of extended playing time.

“It doesn’t bother me to have young players [carry us],” coach Randy Waldrum said. “The last month we’ve been playing as good as anybody in the country … You’ve got some sophomores that play like they’ve been here four years already.”

The reason the underclassmen play like veterans is because, in many ways, they are veterans. Any highlight reel of the Irish in the past two seasons has featured sophomore Melissa Henderson prominently. Last year she was named Big East Rookie of the Year and earned first-team Freshman All-American honors as she played in all 27 games, starting 20, and scored 17 goals.

“A couple of those kids are kids that really played last year, and had a great year,” Waldrum said of the Irish youth movement. “Melissa was pretty much a starter for most of the year.”

Joining Henderson on the field their freshman season were classmates Jessica Schuveiller and Courtney Barg. Schuveiller started every game and totaled the second-highest volume of minutes among position players on the team, and Barg started all six NCAA Tournament games. This deep experience leads to Waldrum’s rock-solid confidence.

“[Henderson, Schuveiller, and Barg] are kids that had a year experience under their belt playing deep into the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “I don’t think [the postseason] will be something that is new or intimidating to them. They have gone through it.”

Joining the three young veterans on the field this season has been freshman defender Jazmin Hall. As injuries this season depleted any upperclassmen depth the Irish may have had at the beginning of the season, Waldrum was forced to turn to players like Hall to step in. Once on the field, Hall has only impressed and gained valuable experience, so much so that Waldrum said he is already certain she will not be daunted by the playoff pressure.

“This will be new for her, with the playoffs and everything,” he said. “She’ll have to get her feet wet and not let the process intimidate her. But I think she has played in enough big games through the year that she is ready for it.”

One of the biggest differences for Notre Dame between this postseason and last is the girl in the goal. Weiss did not start a single game last year, but about halfway through the Big East slate this season, she moved past senior Kelsey Lysander into the starting spot in the goal, and after only allowing one goal in nearly 600 minutes of conference action, she has not looked back.

“The competition between the three keepers [freshman Maddie Fox being the third] has been very close all year,” Waldrum said. “Nikki has been hot lately, which has been good because we have been able to get her into some big games.”

Despite Weiss’ record-setting performances so far, Waldrum said his expectations for her in the playoffs are being held in check.

“The playoffs are a little different animal,” the 11th-year head coach said. “She has shown us that she has the consistency to handle that and do well with it, and this time of year that is all you really ask of your goalkeeper, just to be consistent and handle the things you are supposed to. And then if she shows a great save in there along the way, that is icing on the cake.”

As long as the young Irish continue to play as well as they have been, a cake or celebration of some sort looks to be on its way. Notre Dame plays St. John’s in the Big East tournament semifinal Friday, and the youth are just getting started.

“It’s been the young players that have really carried us,” Waldrum said. “That bodes well for the future too.”