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Women’s Soccer: Program earns third national championship

Chris Masoud | Friday, May 20, 2011

Notre Dame finished the 2010 season in championship form, capturing the program’s third national title, and their second under Irish coach Randy Waldrum.

While a lone victory in early December will do little to dictate the outcome of the 2011 campaign, junior defender Jessica Schuveiller believes the desire for a consecutive title will prevent any Irish player from sitting on her laurels.

“We know what it’s like to not finish first and not finish on top,” Schuveiller said. “Now, having won and knowing the feeling of what it’s like to be part of a championship team, that is motivation in itself.”

While most teams wait until the preseason to begin shifting the focus from celebrating a championship to preparing for another run, junior forward and 2011 Honda Sports Award winner Melissa Henderson said the adjustment began on the trip back to campus.

“I remember driving on the bus and talking with a couple of the girls on our way to the airport,” Henderson said. “We just kind of looked at each other and it was just like, ‘This is probably the greatest feeling I’ve had in my life.’ After that, we [said,] ‘Let’s do it again, let’s make it happen again.'”

Waldrum added that unlike his first national championship team in 2004, the current squad immediately set its sights on a repeat run. The desire to become only the second women’s soccer program to win consecutive national championships and the first since North Carolina accomplished the feat from 2008 to 2009 took hold of the team before the fervor of winning a championship had even subsided.

“That was really interesting, because I think it really did start that quick,” Waldrum said. “We enjoyed the moment for all of us being the first [in 2004]. I don’t recall any of those kinds of conversations coming back from ‘04.”

Notre Dame’s quest for the College Cup began in the spring of 2010, as Waldrum rallied his players through sprints, drills and more sprints. While the dominance of Henderson at the front was a certainty, questions still remained heading into the regular season, including a gaping hole created by a sidelined Courtney Barg at the midfield position.

Like all championship-caliber teams, a number of players stepped up to the challenge, but none moreso than freshman Elizabeth Tucker. Tabbed by Waldrum to fill in the hole left by Barg, the rookie finished with nine goals and three assists, exceeding the expectations of teammates and coaches alike.

“[Waldrum] is one of the greatest coaches in the country,” Schuveiller said. “We trust his decisions.”

But Waldrum’s biggest decision did not come until the final two weeks preceding the NCAA tournament. After a 2-0 upset at the hands of Connecticut on Oct. 31 eliminated the Irish prematurely from the Big East championships, Notre Dame found itself on the wrong side of momentum.

“We had reached a point in the season where we weren’t necessarily playing as well as we hoped, and we needed time to change things if we wanted to come back and win a championship,” senior goalkeeper Nikki Weiss said.

The loss to Connecticut capped a five-game stretch that included two ties, and Waldrum admitted a significant change had to be made to set the Irish back on course.

“There’s no doubt [the loss] was a turning point,” he said. “Why certain things fell the way they did, I don’t know that I could put my finger on all of it. After that happened, that just made us realize that we finally do have two weeks if we are going to make a move.”

So with just two weeks of practice remaining before the first round of the tournament, Waldrum moved senior Lauren Fowlkes to the midfield position, bringing junior Molly Campbell back into a defensive role.

“I don’t ever recall having made a move like that in the 20-something years I’ve been coaching, because that’s a position that’s so hard — to pull somebody out of the middle of your defense late in the season and bring somebody else in,” Waldrum said.

“Two things had to happen to make that work. One is that we were willing, since we’ve tied two games and lost a game in the past five, we might as well try and score more goals and win the games in the playoffs, even if it means we’re going to be a little bit shaky in the back … The other big piece that a lot of people don’t talk about is how well Molly Campbell came in and played in that last stretch.”

As evidenced by Notre Dame’s flawless 6-0 record in the NCAA tournament, the gutsy move was a complete success.

Prior to the position rotation, Waldrum had experimented with a similar lineup in the preseason, but met challenges. Nevertheless, Waldrum’s faith in his players and their unwavering trust in him made the change the eventual success it was.

“We had actually tried Molly during preseason back there because I was thinking we might need Lauren up front, and it just didn’t look the same,” Waldrum said. “Lauren had to bring back a scoring presence, which she did, and Molly had to at least be consistent in the back, which she was. It just changed the mindset. Training from then on out was amazing.”

Handed a four-seed by the selection committee, Notre Dame defeated New Mexico and USC in the first two rounds of the tournament with scores of 3-0 and 4-0 respectively. The Irish then travelled to North Carolina to face the most decorated program in women’s soccer, where they dismantled their heated rival 4-1.

Before heading to Cary, N.C., for the College Cup, the Irish blanked Oklahoma State 2-0 in front of a hostile crowd of 2,660 fans. Suddenly, Notre Dame had gone from the upstart No. 4 seed to a legitimate title contender.

“I don’t know how to pinpoint it or why it got so good, if it was just a realization for everybody that one more game that we lose and we’re done, or if it was the seeds that came out and the kids got [upset] about it,” Waldrum said.

With a renewed focus, the Irish took down Ohio State 1-0 to set up a match with the top-ranked Stanford Cardinals for the collegiate soccer crown. A goal by freshman Adriana Leon 63 minutes into the game gave Notre Dame its first title since 2004.

“It’s sunk in, I think,” Fowlkes said. “I think it’s something that kind of gives you the chills every time you think about it and you’re excited about on a daily basis. I think there’s no better thing in a college career. I’m so fortunate to have been able to do that and be a part of such a great team. It’s amazing. It’s still hard to put into words.”

While Notre Dame will lose a core of seniors that includes Fowlkes, Weiss, forward Rose Augustin, forward Erica Iantorno and defender Julie Scheilder, Waldrum believes the 2011 roster will feature just as much talent as this year’s. A talented incoming class coupled with the momentum of winning a national title should position the Irish well for a repeat run.

“What I’ve learned over the years is that you don’t really replace those kids,” Waldrum said. “You’ve just got a new group that comes in. They now have to come in and fill the role, and I think there’s enough talent coming back that — we’ve been doing this a long time — we’ll be talented enough to make another run at it.”