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Women’s Soccer: Playing with passion

Bill Brink | Friday, December 7, 2007

Amanda Cinalli spoke deliberately, answering questions with a measured demeanor. Her voice stayed even as she described her experiences in high school, her fellow teammates and this season’s rocky start.

It’s when she started talking about soccer that she got excited.

Her eyes lit up and her face widened into a smile when she told of the hours she spent outside as a kid – juggling and working on her footwork, learning her brother’s ‘secret moves’ and taking lessons with a foot skills coach named Kiko.

“He was so much fun, a little short foreign guy but I loved being around him,” Cinalli said. “I worked practically every day, and I loved doing it so it was easy to do every day.”

That love of the sport has carried her from childhood to high school to Notre Dame, where she won a national championship as a freshman and has the opportunity to win another this weekend when the Irish travel to College Station, Texas, for the College Cup – soccer’s equivalent of the Final Four.

Cinalli had played soccer all her life, but said she became serious about playing in college when the recruiting process began at Laurel High School in Maple Heights, Ohio.

“I loved high school soccer. We weren’t the best team around,” Cinalli said of her soccer days at Laurel. “We played in a small private school league; the competition wasn’t always that great.”

Cinalli said the small size of Laurel, an all-girls school, fostered a bond between her and her teammates.

“Being at a small all girls school, we were all really close,” Cinalli said. “It was just something that was really fun.”

Cinalli went from one close-knit community to another when she chose Notre Dame. She said that aspect of life on campus, along with the University’s religious values, enticed her to come here. Cinalli also liked the dynamic the players and the coaches enjoyed as well as the school’s academic reputation.

“Just being able to be around the team and the coaching staff, it felt like a family here,” she said. “I just really fell in love with it. You get a great education and come out with a wonderful degree.”

Coming from an all-girls school to Notre Dame, Cinalli said, took some getting used to.

“You’re with people that you’re not as comfortable with, so they teach you to be very outspoken and speak your mind,” she said. “It’s interesting coming in, because there’s guys around, and I’m just like, ‘Whoa.'”

Cinalli had another eye-opening experience her freshman season when the Irish went 24-1-1 and defeated UCLA in penalty kicks to win the national championship. Cinalli started 24 games and scored 10 goals during the championship season and earned first-team all-Big East honors.

“We’re coming in as a freshman, it’s so, kind of, overwhelming and just so exciting that you’re actually in the national championship game,” Cinalli said. “It’s so much fun and it’s an experience that we’ll never forget.”

Cinalli also had the chance to take her game overseas as a member of the U.S. U-21 national team. Along with fellow Notre Dame players Brittany Bock, Kerri Hanks and Michele Weissenhofer, Cinalli played in Manchester, England, over that spring break. She and Weissenhofer also played on the 2007 U-21 team that won the Nordic Cup against international teams.

“It’s always very beneficial to play internationally,” Cinalli said. “You get great experience, great competition. Obviously you’re getting different types of games and players from all around the world. You’re getting thrown into a situation where you’re in a different culture and a different country. It’s very fun, it’s a good experience, and I learned a lot.”

Cinalli said the style of international soccer differed slightly from that in the U.S.

“International teams are very good too, and they’re getting more and more athletic,” Cinalli said. “The thing about the girls internationally is sometimes they can be very technical, very skillful. They bring different types of games.”

Though Irish coaches named Cinalli the third solo captain in the team’s history before this season, she said the team’s upperclassmen combine to form the true leading unit.

“Yes, I am the captain by title, but I think all the upperclassmen are great leaders and they all bring something unique to the team,” Cinalli said. “It’s not just me leading the team, it’s several players.”

This season, the Irish faced something they hadn’t often had to deal with – losing.

“We had never really experienced something like that,” Cinalli said. “We’d never really lost that many in a season.”

Notre Dame started 3-4-1. In that span, it lost 7-1 to Santa Clara and lost twice at home, to Oklahoma State and Penn State. Since then, it has won 16 games and lost only once – to West Virginia in penalty kicks in the Big East championship.

“It’s truly unbelievable. This team has come so far,” Cinalli said. “It takes a lot of character to go from such a difficult time at the beginning of the season to grow so much and have the success we’ve been having. It just shows the character and the heart that we have for the game and for each other.”

Cinalli’s role in the Irish offense shifted this season. After scoring double-digit goals in each of the past three seasons, she currently ranks fifth on the team with only three. Still, she said the change made no difference to her.

“It doesn’t bother me at all. As long as our team’s doing well, coach can put me wherever he wants me,” Cinalli said. “If we’re on top at the end of the season, I think that’s the important thing.”

Irish coach Randy Waldrum said earlier in the season that Cinalli’s versatility and skill with the ball made it easy for her to find a role, no matter where she played.

“She’s the one that has that ability to be creative with it, she’s got probably the most overall skill level of the three forwards, she’s more technical, she’s more clean with the ball, she can beat you off the dribble,” Waldrum said on Sept. 18, back when Cinalli spent some time in the forward position. “She’s relentless in the way she attacks and continues to chase and continues to work.”

Since then, Bock has permanently joined Weissenhofer and Hanks up front, and Cinalli has anchored the midfield.

No matter where she is on the field, her deft footwork and subtle direction changes can leave defenders behind. In the Nov. 30 quarterfinal game against Duke, Cinalli kept the ball out of reach of the Blue Devils defenders, at one point spinning between two of them in the middle of the field to mount an offensive charge. Later in the game, she slid to the ball in front of two defenders and tapped it to Hanks, who took it downfield and scored the game-winning goal.

“Cinalli kind of epitomizes the day,” Waldrum said of the play.

Hanks couldn’t say enough about her teammate’s abilities, both as a player and as a leader.

“Every time Amanda Cinalli steps on the field she is going to give you her best game ever,” Hanks said after the Duke game. “She is going to be so positive and encouraging and cheer us up. She is amazing, on and off the field. She is one of the best leaders I’ve ever seen.”

If the Irish beat Florida State Friday in the semifinal game, they face the winner of the Southern California-UCLA match. The chance to begin and end her collegiate career with bookend national championships has Cinalli and her teammates excited.

“To be able to send the seniors off with wins is always a positive thing,” Cinalli said. “Just to have all the players on our team who will be able to experience a national championship, just to allow them to get that feeling, because it’s something you’ll never forget.”

But Cinalli didn’t sound as if she was caught up in the championship hype. She said she was just happy to be playing.

“I’ve always wanted to play soccer for as long as I can. If it’s possible, I’d like to play until I was 80,” she said. “It’s just being able to play a sport that you’re so passionate about and that you love so much, it’s an honor.”