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Underclassmen carry Irish through rough start

Alex Barker | Thursday, December 3, 2009

Entering the season, all signs pointed towards another Notre Dame run at an NCAA Championship.

Sure it didn’t help to lose one of most talented senior classes in program history, but as is true of all great programs, there would be no rebuilding, just reloading. The third-ranked Irish not only boasted a strong senior class, who could not have come closer to a title in its previous tries only to be denied in three College Cup appearances, but also a collection of talented underclassmen ready to step into starring roles, whatever they may be.

“At the beginning of the season, you are still trying people at different positions using different rotations,” junior forward Rose Augustin said.

While still trying to find the right lineup as injuries depleted the team, top-ranked North Carolina came to town.

The Irish had high expectations heading into the rematch of last season’s College Cup final, a 2-1 Tar Heel victory, hoping to christen the brand new Alumni Stadium with an opening night victory.

However, an energetic crowd of 3,000-plus fans weren’t enough to will the Irish to a win as the Tar Heels dominated early and often on their way to a 6-0 shutout.

Things continued to worsen for the Irish.

Just a week later, Notre Dame traveled out west for a pair of showdowns with highly ranked opponents Stanford and Santa Clara. The offensive woes continued as the Irish failed to score in either match, falling 2-0 in both contests.

“When we were struggling to find the right lineup early in the season, injuries really compounded our problems,” Irish coach Randy Waldrum said. “Early on we just didn’t have a solid back line and it took us a while to establish that.”

For some teams, these losses might have just been a case of running into a better opponent. But this Notre Dame team wasn’t accustomed to losing. Prior to the North Carolina loss, the Irish had been riding a 30-game regular-season winning streak following last season’s undefeated regular season. This season, they already had three defeats.

“You are trying to find your way as the season goes on and that’s why you play those hard games early on in the season,” junior forward Lauren Fowlkes said. “It exposes what you need to work on the rest of the season.”

While Notre Dame was able to find its rhythm in time to turn its season around, and thus reach its fourth consecutive College Cup, things might not have panned out so nicely had Waldrum not made a number of crucial personnel changes.

During the blowout loss to North Carolina earlier in the season, Waldrum made the decision to move Fowlkes from the midfield into the central forward position.

“When we made that move, there’s no question that’s when things started to really click,” Waldrum said. “We made a few moves and that was probably one of the biggest.”

No stranger to the position having played it in high school, Fowlkes has shined scoring 10 goals and adding four assists this season on her way to collecting Big East co-Offensive Player of the Year honors.

“[I’m willing to do] whatever is needed for the team and coach thought that it was a good fit. I was excited about it and it just kind of worked out,” Fowlkes said.

Possibly the biggest beneficiary of Fowlkes’ transition has been sophomore forward Melissa Henderson. Henderson has really come on in the NCAA tournament, scoring seven goals in four contests, bringing her season total to 18 tallies and five assists.

“It’s awesome having [Fowlkes] up there,” Henderson said. “All of our forwards are tremendous. But she has been doing really well, to come in there and score the goals that she has and setting up the plays that she has.”

Toward the end of last season, Henderson was slowed by a lingering knee injury that took its toll down the stretch as the Irish got deeper into the tournament. Henderson admitted to feeling much better and it having a positive impact on her performance.

“I’m definitely excited [to be healthier] this year,” she said. “Last season I never really knew how much I could give on the field. Now I know I can give 100 percent and still have energy to go into overtime and actually be able to help my team.”

While Fowlkes and Henderson have had outstanding seasons in their own right, they have junior midfielder Rose Augustin to thank for many of their offensive opportunities. Augustin, in her second season as a regular starter, leads the team with 10 assists and has seven goals of her own.

“[Augustin] has been one of our most consistent players all year,” Waldrum said. “I think she’s having an All-American type year. I think she’s made great improvements in her defending and she’s really become a leader for us on the field.”

Augustin’s emergence became possible when last year’s talented class graduated, creating an opening that Augustin has filled ably.

“Rose has definitely come into her own this season,” senior defender Rachel VanderGenugten said. “Last year she had a lot of other people ahead of her in that position.”

VanderGenugten said necessity spurred the younger players into bigger roles. After Notre Dame’s leading scorer last year, Kerri Hanks, graduated, someone had to pick up the offensive slack. Fowlkes and Henderson have certainly done such. Similarly, Augustin’s leadership was needed in the front line.

“This year it had to be [Rose],” VanderGenugten said. “If Rose didn’t step up, I’m not sure if we would have had an upperclassman [leading] up there at all.”

Another change came in the Irish net. Senior Kelsey Lysander, who started every game last year compiling a 26-1-0 record, began the season splitting time with junior Nikki Weiss before Weiss eventually took over for good.

With all the changes this Irish team has undergone, they find themselves in a familiar position, even familiar to the younger players on the team.

“It’s good to have [those previous tournaments] under your belt and to experience something like that,” Henderson said. “Coming into next year, you are used to it and more prepared.”

The Irish have indeed become used to the NCAA Tournament, as the bar has been set at a high level.

“There is just an expectation to be there [at the NCAA Tournament] every year,” Fowlkes said. “Just having those goals really helps you focus throughout the season.”
After changes throughout the lineup, Fowlkes, Henderson and Augustin have found themselves in positions where their focus could lead the Irish beyond expectations, to a College Cup title.