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ND Women’s Soccer: Thrown into the fire

Jack Hefferon | Friday, August 31, 2012

Two big games. Two nationally ranked opponents. Two packed grandstands.

With a pair of high-profile, high pressure games against No. 14/19 North Carolina and No. 25/21 Santa Clara on tap, Irish coach Randy Waldrum can only hope his young team won’t be seeing double when they host the adidas Invitational this weekend.

The Tar Heels (1-1-1) and Broncos (2-1-0) are both familiar opponents for the Irish, as the squad let results slip away against both last year. Notre Dame controlled most of the game but settled for a 1-1 draw at Santa Clara, and the team lost a 2-1 heartbreaker in overtime to North Carolina.

One year removed from those near misses, Waldrum said he believes his team has learned to focus and close out tight games.

“I hope we’ve seen and learned that we have to focus for 90 minutes, because we lost that game against Carolina very late,” he said. “We lost a mark, and a player sprung in free, and we lost what could have been at least a tie against a good team. Santa Clara was the same story. “Hopefully we’ve learned that lesson, and that’s why we play these teams, so we can improve in those areas before conference play.”

And while exacting some revenge against their two weekend opponents would be nice, a positive performance over the weekend could provide several more important benefits to this year’s squad.

While two victories would add a couple of impressive bullet points to Notre Dame’s NCAA résumé, Waldrum said he wants to see his 12 freshmen continue to improve – win, lose or draw.

“We’re such a young team, and we want our young players playing in these big games early so that when the playoffs come, they’ve already been in those types of games,” he said.

The Irish will have to play three disciplined hours of soccer to challenge their opponents, as both teams are extremely talented. Santa Clara will present a familiar scheme to the Irish with a gameplan is nearly identical to Notre Dame’s.

“Our systems are similar, we have a lot of the same types of players and we recruit against them quite a bit,” Waldrum said. “They’ve got a couple kids that can cause problems for us, and they’re going to be really solid at every position.”

North Carolina, meanwhile, is a historical powerhouse, having won 20 of the last 32 NCAA Championships. The Irish have won three in the past 17 years, including a win over Carolina in 1995.

With so much rivalry and history between the Irish and Tar Heels – in addition to high stakes and packed stadiums – Waldrum said matchups between the two teams are always too close to call.

“I don’t expect them to change anything that they’ve done for the last 15 years that we’ve played them,” he said. “It’s such a storied rivalry. If you look at the history of women’s college soccer, the powers over the past 20 years have been North Carolina and Notre Dame. You can pretty much throw everything out the window when we play them.”

Regardless of how they perform up against the stiff competition, the Irish will gain a lot of experience and learn plenty about themselves from their two gut-check games this weekend. And more than any other reason, that’s why the team packs so much pressure in the early season.

“These are the kinds of teams were going to face in November come NCAA tournament time,” Waldrum said. “So it’s going to be a great learning tool for us, because these teams are going to be good enough to really expose us. It’s going to give us an opportunity to find out the areas we need to get much better in, quickly.”

The Irish will begin the adidas Invitational against Santa Clara at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and will conclude against North Carolina on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Both games will take place at Alumni Stadium.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu