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Familiar foe awaits Irish in College Cup Semis

Mike Gotimer | Thursday, December 3, 2009

For the second straight year, and the third time in four years, Notre Dame and North Carolina will meet again in the College Cup.

In women’s college soccer, No. 5 Notre Dame (21-3-1) and No. 4 North Carolina (21-3-1) have formed the premier rivalry for more than a decade.

“The last 15 years, I think when you think of women’s college soccer, I think Notre Dame [and North Carolina] would probably have to come to mind as that biggest and most storied rivalry,” Irish coach Randy Waldrum said. “Over time that Notre Dame-Carolina rivalry has been one of the best in the country, and I know that when we go there to play, it’s always a packed house and obviously when they come to us it’s a packed house because that’s the game that everybody wants to see, and I think everybody around the country is always waiting to see what the score is the next morning when the game’s over.”

Coming into this season, Notre Dame faced questions early about their ability to replace key seniors after their run to an undefeated national championship ended in the College Cup final with a 2-1 loss to the Tar Heels, the same score that North Carolina defeated the Irish by in 2006 when Notre Dame’s current seniors made their first run at a national title as freshmen.

The Irish had a chance to put concerns surrounding this year’s team to rest when the Tar Heels traveled to Notre Dame for the first time in a decade to open newly-constructed Alumni Stadium on Sept. 4 in a matchup of the top two teams in the country. Unfortunately for the Irish, they were the ones whose heels looked like they were stuck in tar after North Carolina dismantled Notre Dame in a 6-0 blowout. Doubts continued to rise after the Irish lost to Stanford, who enters the College Cup with an undefeated record, and Santa Clara on an early West Coast road trip.

Since their early season struggles, however, the Irish have been one of the hottest teams in the nation, rattling off a 19-game unbeaten streak in which they have trailed for just 16:38.

“They beat us in the beginning of the season when we were a different team. We have changed and developed this season,” senior defender Amanda Clark said. “We are a different team; they don’t know what’s coming to them.”

The streak has given not only Clark, but the whole Irish team confidence, and not only do they expect a better result than their blowout loss in September, but a win against their rivals.

“It’s our time to beat them when it counts,” Clark said. “They won in the beginning here, but we are ready to take that national championship.”

Of the four teams still chasing that national championship, the Irish are the only remaining two-seed. North Carolina, UCLA and Stanford are one-seeds.

“I think, in fact, that [the team is] probably feeling that most people think that we’re the underdogs going into the game,” Waldrum said. “I think we’re the only ones that really feel like we can go there and win and are expecting to do that on Friday.”

After their three disappointing early season losses, the Irish made a few key lineup changes that propelled them to their current unbeaten streak. For starters, junior goalie Nikki Weiss took over the goalkeeper duties from senior Kelsey Lysander and posted a 14-1-1 record in net with an astounding 0.47 goals against average and 7 shutouts, with a 13-0-1 record during the winning streak.

Furthermore, Fowlkes moved from midfield to forward and gave the Irish much needed firepower on offense through her own goal scoring. Fowlkes’s move also freed up sophomore forward Melissa Henderson for more chances in the opponent’s half of the field. Henderson has scored 10 goals and notched three assists in seven playoff games.

“We made a few moves, and [moving Fowlkes] was probably one of the big moves that we made,” Waldrum said. “I think moving [Fowlkes] up front gave us two things. It gave us a player who could hold the ball for us, a bigger stronger kind of target for us to play into that could hold the ball, and I think certainly because she’s a great player in her own right, it now gave the opposition another good player up front to have to deal with, and that’s certainly taken some of the pressure off Henderson.”

For her part, Henderson has teamed with junior midfielder Rose Augustin to provide a spark for the Irish offense during their postseason run.

“I think both of them really turned it on,” Waldrum said. “Rose was pretty good for us scoring some goals early, and then she went through a spell where she was still playing very well but wasn’t scoring as many goals, and then it just seems like come playoff time she got hot again, and I think her and [Henderson] have a great connection with each other.”

The Irish hope that the changes they’ve made will lead to a different outcome against the Tar Heels when they face off on Friday at 8 p.m. in College Station, Tex. Although Waldrum is unsure about how North Carolina might plan for Notre Dame’s changes, he thinks that his team has an opportunity to catch the Tar Heels sleeping.

“Well I really don’t think they will change,” he said. “They’ve got such a history in their own program, I think they’ll continue to play the way they’ve played all year, and I don’t think just because we’ve changed some personnel around it will cause them to make any adjustments or changes.

“What will be different is I think they’re going to have to respect the fact that we are a different team than what they saw when they came to our place in September,” he continued. “What you hope for is that they don’t respect it enough and they don’t take it seriously enough, and they remember the 6-0 win and you can catch them a little bit off guard if that’s the case.”