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ND Women’s Soccer

Notre Dame defensive play finding its groove

| Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Seven hours, 30 minutes and 20 seconds.

That’s how long it has been since No. 9 Notre Dame (12-4-1, 7-2-0 ACC) has conceded a goal. That time includes five straight shutouts, the longest streak in program history since 2007.

“[It’s all about] trusting each other and making sure that we’re giving each other cover and communicating between the lines,” Irish junior captain and defender Katie Naughton said. “Over the years, we’ve gotten to know each other’s styles and how we play and what we feel comfortable doing.”

The last time an opponent scored against the Irish, No. 3 Virginia grabbed a last-minute 2-1 win Oct. 5 when sophomore goalkeeper Kaela Little made a sprawling save that deflected straight to the feet of Cavalier junior forward Brittany Ratcliffe, who converted the easy opportunity with 21 seconds remaining in regulation.

Irish sophomore goalkeeper Kaela Little backstops a defense that has blanked opponents for seven consecutive hours of game time.

Irish sophomore goalkeeper Kaela Little backstops a defense that has blanked opponents for seven consecutive hours of game time.

Since then, the Irish defense has conceded just 14 shots on goal, and Little has saved them all, putting the memory of the Virginia goal far behind her, she said.

“I wouldn’t say anything’s really changed [since Virginia]” Little said. “It was just a breakdown in the back. We’ve moved on from that, and we’ve learned from that.”

After the Virginia game, Notre Dame’s goals against average stood at 0.92. Now, it is 0.634, good for top 25 in the NCAA. Notre Dame’s shutout percentage of 0.647 also ranks in the top 10 nationally.

Little has 11 shutouts on the year, a career high and the best mark for an Irish goalkeeper since 2006. She is tied with Florida State redshirt freshman Cassie Miller for the ACC lead.

“She really comes up big in some key moments and has saved us quite a few times,” Naughton said. “You definitely have to give her a lot of credit for our shutouts. Her communication’s really great back there … letting us know what’s going on.”

Little’s job in net has been made easier by the presence of a veteran back line in Notre Dame’s 4-3-3 formation. Naughton, senior Sammy Scofield and junior Brittany Von Rueden have a combined 170 starts for the Irish, while freshman Sabrina Flores, the newest addition to the defense, has started all 17 games this season and played the second-most minutes on the team.

“The whole back four together has been doing a really great job,” Irish coach Theresa Romagnolo said. “Our outside backs have done a great job of pressuring and denying service. The center backs [Naughton and Scofield] as always are just so solid in stepping in and covering.”

The Irish have not only limited goals, but cut down on the number of opportunities for opposing offenses. In the past five games, Notre Dame’s adversaries have had three corner kicks, while the Notre Dame midfield has dominated possession, putting more shots on goal, 50-14.

“As a team, we’re doing a better job of picking up 50-50 [balls], so that we’re getting a hold of the ball more,” Romagnolo said.

The Irish will enter the ACC tournament Nov. 7 along with No. 2 Florida State, Virginia and No. 5 North Carolina. For Notre Dame to have success in the postseason, the defense will have to maintain its current form, Little said.

“Obviously, one of our goals is to keep a clean sheet every game and the last couple of games, we’ve really been clicking on the defensive end,” she said. “We have the mentality that no matter who we’re playing, they’re not going to score on us and that we’re going to take it to them.”

In addition to their loss to Virginia, the Irish fell to North Carolina, 3-2, in double overtime Sept. 20. Those three goals are the most the Irish have surrendered in one match all season.

Notre Dame has yet to play Florida State, but the Seminoles, as well as the Cavaliers, rank in the top 10 nationally for scoring offense.

“Having a great mentality and knowing that we are capable of playing against those teams because we have already played them earlier in the season. We know we can matchup with them,” Naughton said when asked how the defense would handle the step up in competition. “That and continuing to communicate and support each other.”

Notre Dame closes the regular season on the road against Boston College. The Eagles (10-8-0, 3-6-0) have lost five of their last seven matches but are fifth in the ACC in goals per game (1.83).

The Eagles and the Irish square off in Newton, Massachusetts, on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

Contact Greg