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Irish start conference play

Jack Hefferon | Thursday, September 15, 2011

When the Irish scheduled away matches at top-5 opponents Duke, North Carolina and Stanford in their early season schedule, their hope was that it would leave them better prepared for a repeat run at a national championship. Despite losing those three contests, No. 14/12 Notre Dame (3-3-1) feels the lessons it learned will ultimately help as the Big East season begins.

“That’s why we play a schedule like that,” Irish coach Randy Waldrum said. “You need these games early to get exposed. We didn’t want to lose those matches, but now we know we can play those teams. Now we just need to stay focused and not lose our confidence.”

One area where that early stretch helped the Irish was with their inexperience off the bench. With key players like senior midfielder Courtney Barg and freshman midfielder Karin Simonian out due to injury, underclassmen were called on to play big minutes in their absence. With the team now beginning to get healthy again, the roster looks much deeper.

“Depth and inexperience have been issues for us,” Waldrum said. “We haven’t been able to have a consistent group of players on the field yet this season. We were forced to go deep in our roster early on, but them having to play will help us in the long run.

“We should have [Simonian] and [junior defender] Jazmin Hall available this weekend, but we’ve still got a couple of people banged up. It’s something we’ve got to work through.”

Getting a cohesive 11 on the field will be crucial for Notre Dame as it heads into Big East play. After claiming last year’s regular season championship, the Irish were ousted by Connecticut in their first match at the conference tournament. Waldrum believes the team is ready to take on the conference and exceed last season’s performance.

“We try to split up the season, and now we’re headed into Big East play,” he said. “We have a great conference in the Big East, but there’s no team in it better than the Dukes, the Carolinas and the Stanfords we’ve played so far. We want the regular season title, and then we want to take the Big East championship that next weekend. If we perform the way we should, we’ll win.”

First up on the road to a conference championship is a pair of matches this weekend. Notre Dame will open Big East play Friday against Louisville at Alumni Field. The Cardinals (2-4-1) are an exciting, unpredictable side led by sophomore forward Christine Exeter, the reigning Big East Rookie of the Year.

“Louisville has the same players almost every year, but their team is always up and down in the standings,” Waldrum said. “They have five Canadian kids who played well for them as freshmen, and Exeter is a very good player up top. They’re going to be a difficult matchup for us.”

After Friday’s match, the Irish will hit the road to face Cincinnati on Sunday. Waldrum believes that between the team’s attitude and a unique home field advantage, a trip to play the Bearcats (4-2-2) is always a challenge.

“Cincinnati is always a hardworking, blue-collar team,” he said. “[Cincinnati coach] Michelle Salmon always gets a lot out of those kids. It’s also very tough going there because their facility isn’t very good. With the Astroturf there, it can be hard for our kids to get into a rhythm, and that really levels the playing field.”

And while Cincinnati may have a home-field advantage, Waldrum and the Irish hope that Alumni Stadium continues to be a difficult place to visit.

“Around this time last year we were about 20th in attendance,” Waldrum said. “This year, we’re in the top six, and that’s been great for the team. We’re thankful to the student body for all the support they’ve shown so far, and let’s try to keep that going.”

Notre Dame and Louisville will kick off at 5 p.m. Friday at Alumni Stadium. The Irish will then head to Cincinnati for a 3:30 p.m. start Sunday.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu