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Hartnett: Big East still presents challenges for Irish (Sept. 27)

By Brian Hartnett | Thursday, September 27, 2012

Irish coach Randy Waldrum said he was ecstatic over it. Coaches and fans across the country applauded it. ESPN devoted a significant amount of coverage to it.

I’m talking, of course, about the recent announcement of Notre Dame’s impending move to the ACC.

After examining the move, who could possibly blame them for their enthusiasm? Notre Dame will soon play current rival North Carolina yearly and face a conference slate that includes eight teams ranked in this week’s top-25 standings. Not to mention, the Irish will make multiple trips each season to key southern recruiting hotbeds.

However, as appetizing as the ACC may look to Irish fans, the timetable for the conference switch is still to be determined. In the meantime, it’s easy to forget Notre Dame is already part of a different conference: the Big East.

And while the current Big East may look like a geographically confusing assortment of former Conference USA champions, Notre Dame’s opponents aren’t exactly the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The Irish have captured 11 conference tournament championships in their 17 years of Big East play but have fallen short of the crown in three of the last five seasons. This includes a stunning conference tournament quarterfinal loss to Connecticut in the team’s national championship 2010 season, as well as a nail-biting loss to Louisville in last year’s semifinals.

These recent failures are exactly why it’s refreshing to see this Irish squad so focused on reclaiming the top spot in the conference, a goal Waldrum has emphasized as the Irish move into the heart of their conference schedule.

So far, Waldrum’s squad has made good on its coach’s goal, as the team has won its first three conference games by a combined score of 11-2.

More importantly, in just 270 minutes of conference play, Notre Dame partially exorcised its demons from last year (in a 2-1 win over then-No. 12 Louisville), demonstrated the offensive firepower it possesses (in a 7-0 win over Cincinnati) and showed great poise in dominating the time of possession battle (in a 2-1 win over Pittsburgh).

Of course, it’s not purely coincidental that Notre Dame’s recent breakout has come at the same time as the return of freshman forward Cari Roccaro and junior midfielder Mandy Laddish from the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. Roccaro has sparked the Irish offense, scoring three goals in four games thus far, while Laddish has been a stabilizing force in an unexperienced midfield group.

As important as their contributions have been, Roccaro and Laddish will play only small part in determining Notre Dame’s conference title chances. The rest will be left largely to the “Baby Irish,” including the eight underclassmen that started in the team’s most recent contest, a 3-0 home win over Oakland.

Fortunately for the Irish, the team’s young core was thrown into the fire early, as it began its college career with road trips in tough environments like Portland and crucial home matchups against the likes of Santa Clara and North Carolina.

Although Notre Dame jumped out to a rough start, it seems the challenging non-conference competition has undoubtedly forced the team to mature quickly and has prepared the team for its tough in-conference tests to come, which include a visit to No. 14 Georgetown and a potential tournament date with No. 19 Marquette.

If the Irish can survive those games and not suffer any breakdowns in the process, they should have an unblemished path toward recapturing that recently elusive Big East crown. And, although most loyal Notre Dame fans claim not to care about conference titles, a Big East championship this year would mark an important first step for an Irish squad primed to peak in two or three years.

So, by all means, bring on the ACC competition. Just make sure it comes after Notre Dame shows the Big East why it’s been the conference’s premier program since 1995.

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu.