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ND Women’s Soccer: ND to open tourney at Illinois

Megan Golden | Thursday, November 10, 2011

After receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, the defending national champions will hit the road to take on No. 20 Illinois in the first round Sunday.

A 2-1 loss to Louisville in the Big East semifinals on Nov. 4 left Notre Dame (10-7-3, 6-3-2 Big East) hoping for a chance to repeat its journey toward a national title. The Irish join three other Big East schools in the program’s 19th consecutive trip to the tournament.

Just a year ago, the Irish made a deep run in the tournament and defeated North Carolina and Oklahoma State in the third round and quarterfinals, respectively. Notre Dame’s magical postseason included a win over Ohio State and a hard-fought victory against Stanford in the College Cup.

Irish senior forward and co-captain Melissa Henderson said the upperclassmen are excited to show the freshmen what it will take to win the program’s second national championship in as many years.

“I definitely think [experience] is a bonus for us upperclassmen, who have kind of been there, done that and been in that position before,” she said. “In a way, it keeps us a little more aware of what we’re about to go through. I think it’s just best that we can get our freshmen on the same page and get ready to go.”

The Illini (16-4-2, 8-2-1 Big Ten) are coming off a Big Ten championship, which earned them an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Illinois topped Penn State in overtime in the Big Ten title game and won its last three games in the conference tournament during the extra period.

The Illini beat Louisville in overtime on Aug. 28, while the Cardinals defeated the Irish twice this season.

Illinois sophomore midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo has 17 goals on the season, eight of which were game-winning scores. Starting all of the Illini’s 22 games this season, senior midfielder Marissa Mykines is the second leading-scorer with eight goals.

“Their system and formation’s a little different than ours, but they’re solid all the way around,” Irish coach Randy Waldrum said. “The good thing about it is they’re a team that’s going to play. They’re not an overly physical [team], and it’s not a very direct team. They’re a team that’s going to actually try to play the game, and that’s what we do, so it should be a really, really good matchup.”

Notre Dame’s defense was the primary area of concern earlier in the season, but the back line has allowed just five goals in its last nine games. The key to an Irish victory, Waldrum said, is eliminating big plays in dead-ball situations.

“That’s kind of where we’ve struggled this year. We’ve got to be better at [defending dead-ball situations] in the NCAA tournament, or we’re not going to last really long,” he said. “I think the run of play defensively, we were good. The team, in general, on set pieces we weren’t good, and that’s something we’ve got to address.”

Henderson said the team relies on its experience to eliminate the pressure involved in entering the tournament as the defending national champions.

“I think that last year’s last year and this year’s a new year,” she said. “I think we are all just going to have fun getting another national championship and just celebrating with all the freshmen who haven’t had that experience yet. I think we’re more excited to just play our best and do our best this year.”

Notre Dame defeated Illinois 2-0 in the second round of the 2007 NCAA tournament, the only other time the two schools have met on the soccer field.

The Irish have advanced at least to the second round of the NCAA tournament every year since 1993. With a win, Notre Dame will face either Arkansas-Pine Bluff or Oklahoma State.

Waldrum said the Irish are confident a trip to Kennesaw, Ga., the site of the College Cup, is ahead of them.

“We’ve had two of our best practices since preseason this week. That’s what you want come tournament time,” he said. “It kind of does remind me a little bit of what went on last year when we lost in the [Big East] quarterfinals to UConn, and we got ready for the tournament and had two great weeks of practice. I think no other team’s made a run on the road like we did last year, so you hope that helps you this year.”

Notre Dame will face the Illini at Illinois Soccer Stadium on Sunday at 2 p.m.

Contact Megan Golden at mgolde01@saintmarys.edu