Chris Masoud | Thursday, December 2, 2010
At a glance, Notre Dame’s convincing victories on the road to its College Cup appearance this weekend can be a bit misleading. Postseason success that included a 4-0 dismantling of Southern California and a 4-1 rout of North Carolina on the road will raise questions about the team’s ease of schedule.
But in the eyes of Irish coach Randy Waldrum, Notre Dame’s road to the Cup has nothing to do with luck of the draw.
“Probably what was one of the hardest draws we’ve had in the four years I’ve been here,” Waldrum said. “We’ve played some teams that are real capable of scoring a lot of goals on you. The defense has carried us and that’s what you need carrying you at this time of the year.”
Posting three shutouts in its four tournament matches, the Irish defense has stifled high-powered offenses in the friendly confines of Alumni Stadium and before sell-out crowds on the road. Well aware of the stakes at hand, the backline has risen to the intensity of each contest.
“Our tournament games have really been the best games we’ve played all year long,” senior goalkeeper Nikki Weiss said. “Since we get here in August for [the] preseason, winning a national championship is always our goal, so once it actually comes time to make that dream come true we get really excited.”
But turning up the intensity in the postseason takes more than flicking a switch. Notre Dame’s defensive dominance in the tournament has been an extension of the team’s regular season success rather than a sudden improvement.
Heading into the postseason, the squad had only allowed 10 goals in 18 games, while posting 10 shutouts.
“I think a lot of it really has to do with keeping the ball away from us,” Weiss said. “I think our offense does a good job of that. We just work really well together. We always try to stay really close and tight, and move around the field so we don’t leave a lot of gaps in between.”
Much of that coordination can be attributed to taking the field each game with the same personnel. Senior defender and four-year starter Julie Scheidler said the back line has developed an uncanny chemistry the stems from the players’ familiarity with each other.
“It’s just a different feeling being friends with someone and then playing on the field next to them — you just know what their moves are going to be and exactly what they’re going to do,” Scheidler said. “It’s like we don’t even have to talk anymore, it’s just kind of a look. We just know each other so well that it just comes.”
So when Waldrum decided to move senior Lauren Fowlkes from the back to the midfield position following a 2-0 loss in the quarterfinals of the Big East championships, that chemistry was put to the test. But Fowlkes’ replacement, junior Molly Campbell, has proven to be an excellent fit as she continues her transition from the midfield.
“Moving Molly back wasn’t a real hard thing to do because she had three really solid people around her that could kind of help put her at ease when we made that change,” Waldrum said. “She stepped in and has been fantastic for us in the back. I can’t say enough.”
In addition to being a capable defender, Campbell brings an offensive mentality to a group of seasoned defenders. Rather than detracting from the back line’s unity, Campbell’s teammates said they come to appreciate her nuances and aggressive tendencies.
“It was obviously a good decision,” Weiss said. “Molly’s a very solid player. She’s not a natural-born defender, but sometimes it’s helpful that she has that attacking mindset. She’s come in and really handled her job well.”
While Campbell’s addition to the defense came towards the end of the season, the Irish came into the year with a number of talented underclassmen with limited or no experience to the back line vying for a starting spot. Freshman Kecia Morway and sophomore Jazmin Hall emerged as the leading candidates, and the two have split time on the pitch all season.
Waldrum credits their energy and ability to transition smoothly to the collegiate level for their immediate success.
“First I came in obviously really nervous because I didn’t know the people playing around me,” Morway said. “Throughout the season, with all of everyone’s support in the back line, I’ve kind of bonded with them and learned how they played. It enabled me to adjust to the system and do my job better.”
Joining a defense that features a lone senior and two juniors, Morway and Hall have made their contributions felt while still learning the ropes from an experienced line. The two have not only complemented each other well, but have added youth to the dynamic group.
“Kecia and Jazz are doing really well for us,” Weiss said. “They’re very interchangeable, which is good. They both have different strengths, which is really beneficial against different teams. The combination of the upperclassmen with the underclassmen is really cohesive.”
But talent and chemistry can only take a team so far. Regardless of a team’s experience level, leadership and passion are an essential part of the championship equation.
The defensive unit has both traits in second-year captain Jessica Schuveiller. More so than the raw talent she brings to the table, the seasoned junior adds direction and composure to the back line and to the squad as a whole, Waldrum said.
“By leadership for us, it’s not only on the field,” Waldrum said. “In the last few weeks, Jess has been really good, especially since we moved Lauren out of the back. Lauren was usually the more vocal player, and now Jess has really stepped up and organized things on the field and has really taken charge on the field with her leadership.”
Quick to deflect praise, Schuveiller said the team’s success can be attributed in large part to Weiss, who has been a mainstay in the Irish goal all season.
“[Nikki] is amazing,” Schuveiller said. “Playing in front of her is really easy because she is so confident. She does a great job communicating and it helps out a lot. It really helps that we’re all friends on and off the field, so the chemistry is there.”
With the Big East’s lowest goals against average (.53) and highest save percentage (.867) during the regular season, Weiss has enjoyed tremendous success during her final season in an Irish uniform. But it wasn’t always that way.
Weiss struggled to earn the job as the starting net-minder during her first two seasons at Notre Dame, a result of inconsistency and transitioning to collegiate play.
“When you come in to Notre Dame, you’re not sure how high the level actually is,” Weiss said. “For me, it just took a lot longer to adjust. Once I kind of relaxed and started having fun, things starting falling into place.”
Waldrum said the turning point in Weiss’ career came during a 2-0 shutout over Florida State in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships last season. Weiss made five saves and grabbed a number of crosses, leading the Irish in a victory that sent them to the College Cup.
“Last year when she stepped in, she did a great job,” Waldrum said. “She played great for us in the Final Four [in 2009]. Nikki’s played great for us all year and kept us in a lot of the games early when we were trying to find our way with the back.”
As the Irish travel to Cary, N.C., to take on third-seeded Ohio State Friday in the semifinals of the College Cup, Weiss and the back line bolster a Notre Dame squad that has been lifted by its defense all season.
“We know we’re not going to be the ones up on the scoreboard getting the goals or anything,” Scheidler said, “but when you get a good hard tackle in or you really get something good, it sets the tone for the game. You can see it boosts the whole rest of the team.”