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2010 Coverage: CHAMPIONS!

Allan Joseph | Sunday, December 5, 2010

CARY, N.C. — Finally.

After four consecutive title-less College Cup trips, the Irish finally broke through Sunday with a 1-0 defeat of top-ranked Stanford to earn the program’s third national championship.

“We’ll take those losses in past years because today we won it,” junior forward Melissa Henderson said. “We’re national champions. There’s nothing better.”

Freshman forward Adriana Leon recorded the game’s only score, striking in the 63rd minute. She was assisted by the tournament’s most valuable offensive player — Henderson.

“I don’t think words can describe the feeling,” Leon said. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”

Leon’s score was the only time Notre Dame could get past Stanford freshman goalkeeper Emily Oliver, who repeatedly turned away shot after Irish shot, earning herself an all-tournament team accolade in the process.

“I didn’t know she was a freshman until today,” Henderson said. “I think she’s absolutely tremendous. She made so many great saves.”

On the other end of the field, Notre Dame completely shut down the nation’s leading goal-scorer and point-earner in Stanford senior forward Christen Press. After Press earned two relatively harmless shots early, the Irish back line completely neutralized her — she went more than an hour without another shot.

“She was very difficult to shut down,” junior captain and defender Jessica Schuveiller said. “One person might get beat, but there was another person to back them up and with that, we were able to contain her.”

After an evenly matched few minutes in front of 7,833 fans at WakeMed Stadium, it was the Cardinal who had the first true opportunity of the afternoon when sophomore defender Courtney Verloo blasted a shot from 19 yards out past senior goalkeeper Nikki Weiss and off the left post.

“I think if the shot from Courtney would have went in … that would have broken the ice for us and boosted the confidence and we could have won today,” Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said.

From that point forward, however, Notre Dame slowly but surely took control of the game. Just a few minutes after Verloo’s shot, senior forward Rose Augustin found Henderson in the box for a header. Henderson got a good shot on goal, but Oliver was able to tip it off the crossbar, keeping the score level at zero.

“I think it started in the first half,” Henderson said. “There was just a point in the first half where we were like, ‘We got this, and we can match up,’ and we did it.”

The Irish carried their momentum into the second half and broke through just past the hour mark when Henderson settled a punt from Weiss, slipped past a Cardinal defender and centered for Leon from the end line.

“When the ball was coming I just anticipated a goal, saw the open net, and told myself, “This is going in,'” Leon said.

As Stanford, trailing for the first time since Sept. 10, pressed forward to try to equalize, the Irish continued to get open shots on goal only to be frustrated by acrobatic saves from Oliver.

“Honestly, due to Oliver, I thought we were a bit unlucky not to win by two or three,” Waldrum said. “We talked about how would they handle it if they go behind. When you’re winning all the time and don’t play from behind very often, it’s not an easy thing.”

The Irish benefited from the full return of junior midfielder Courtney Barg from injury, whom Schuveiller called “the best midfielder in the country.” Barg, Henderson and Schuveiller have played together since meeting on their U-11 team in Dallas and used that familiarity with each other to their advantage on the big stage.

“The real key for us was that Courtney Barg was so good for us today,” Waldrum said. “That’s the calming effect. When you get that type of Courtney, then it allows us to do so many things. At the end, in the heat of the battle, you need a player that can get the ball and calm it down and be composed.”

Notre Dame was the first squad in NCAA history to defeat four seeded teams on its way to a national championship. The accomplishment did not surprise Waldrum who said that his team began to feel like the best team in the country shortly before the NCAA tournament started.

“The path we took, with the way we won games, with 14 or 15 goals and one against us in four games, beating [North] Carolina on the road, beating a very good Stanford team, knocking off two No. 1’s and I think two No. 3’s — to me, we’re the best team in the country,” Waldrum said. “I’m really proud of the girls.”

As Waldrum looked back on his squad’s season, he had one overriding thought.

“This was the best team in the country,” he said. “This was not an upset.”