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Hadley: Balance helps team excel in elite ACC (Oct. 4)

Greg Hadley | Friday, October 4, 2013

With six teams ranked in the top 13 of the NSCAA Poll, the ACC is indisputably the premier conference in the country for women’s soccer.

So it wasn’t exactly a surprise or an insult when No. 4 Notre Dame was picked to finish fifth in the conference in the preseason coaches’ poll.

Even though they were returning 10 starters from a team that advanced all the way to the NCAA quarterfinals, the Irish (9-1-1, 5-0-1 ACC) faced an uphill battle in their first year in the ACC. Defending national champion North Carolina, College Cup finalist Florida State and defending ACC champion Virginia all stood in Notre Dame’s way. Top to bottom, the conference was loaded with high-quality opponents. One or two off nights, and the Irish would already be out of the race.

Now, six weeks into the season, the Irish are closing out a dominant early stretch of ACC play that had them sitting in a tie for first place with the No. 1 team in the nation, Virginia, before last night’s tie against No. 13 Wake Forest. And the best part of it all for coach Randy Waldrum is how balanced the Irish have been while doing it.

As good as the Irish looked at the start of the season, smothering Illinois and Northwestern, 4-1 each, they’ve been even better since they fell to then-No. 2 UCLA, 1-0. Since that loss, Notre Dame has went 6-0-1, outscoring its opponents 18-2.

It would be hard to say which aspect of the game the Irish excel in most. Freshman goalkeeper Kaela Little sported an impressive 0.42 goals-against average entering last night’s match, good for second in the ACC. Of course, her job is that much easier when the Irish defense allows only 3.3 shots on goal per game. Overall, Notre Dame allowed just 0.4 goals a game through the first 10 games, the eighth-best mark in the nation.

Offensively, the Irish ranked 10th in scoring offense nationally, with 29 goals before last night, and outshot opponents, 208-89, nearly half of which were on goal. They ranked ninth nationally in assists.

The Irish look like a team destined for a deep run. Chalk it up to Waldrum’s wizardry. With a roster of mostly freshmen, he worked his magic last year to push the Irish further than anyone expected. He’s doing it again, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Notre Dame is this sharp early on in the season.

In a conference full of great coaches, Waldrum is one of the all-time best. He is 10th on the all-time wins list in NCAA history and has reached the College Cup eight times in 14 years at Notre Dame. Waldrum is a winner.

Of course, Waldrum has the benefit of coaching some of the best talent in the country. The Irish are one of the deepest teams in the conference, if not the nation. Last year’s freshmen have the benefit of their NCAA experience and are joined by a top-10-ranked class of freshmen, including superstar Morgan Andrews.

Together with the solid leadership provided by the upperclassmen, the Irish have all the pieces for a truly great season. The last time Notre Dame started a season 9-1 was 2010, which was also the last time the Irish won a national championship.

It’s too early to tell if this year’s squad is that good, but I think it’s fairly clear that the Irish are headed for bigger things than fifth in the ACC.

Contact Greg Hadley at ghadley@nd.edu   

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.