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Texas three-step

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, September 15, 2011

Nine years ago and more than 1,000 miles south of Notre Dame, amid awkward icebreakers and handshakes, an unbreakable bond formed between Jessica Schuveiller, Courtney Barg and Melissa Henderson. Nowadays, that bond is best seen in a defensive clearance followed by crisp midfield passing and finished off with a rip into the back of the net.

“College [consists of] the best four years of your life, and it might as well be spent with some great people,” senior forward Henderson said. “I am so thankful to have [Schuveiller and Barg]. The time has just flown by with them.”

The trio met in seventh grade, when they joined the Dallas Texans club team, and have been inseparable since. Their time together has taken them from Texas plains to South Bend winters to overseas stints with the U.S. National Team, yet the smooth transition from club to high school to college soccer remains the group’s most cherished asset.

“It’s honestly been a blessing to be able to come to a school so far away and have such a close group of us to always be around,” senior defender Schuveiller said. “It’s like a part of your family came to school with you. It made the transition so much easier, and we became even closer.”

Henderson echoed that sentiment, adding that their familiarity brings a level of comfort that takes years to produce.

“We started playing as kids and it’s nice to have a piece of home here with you,” Henderson said. “We already had experience playing together as a group so just being here together created a comfort zone for us.”

That comfort zone was evident in the trio’s crowning achievement: a NCAA national championship last year.

“We had come so close in club and everybody dreams about that moment in college,” Schuveiller said. “Seeing the College Cup as a kid and then actually being on the field to experience the win was really surreal.”

Led by Schuveiller — the 2010 College Cup Most Outstanding Defensive Player — the Irish defense shut out five of their six opponents in the 2010 NCAA tournament and outscored their opponents 15-1. Henderson was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player with three goals and four assists, and Barg, a senior midfielder, returned from an injury that sidelined her for two months to provide much-needed stability and balance to the Irish midfield for the championship run. The now tri-captains served as critical pieces to Irish coach Randy Waldrum’s third national title, something that Schuveiller credits to Waldrum’s system of developing players.

“Year-in and year-out he has players getting national recognition,” Schuveiller said. “It’s really a testament to how great of a coach he is.”

In 2008, Waldrum heavily recruited the club teammates, who followed their club coach to the Dallas Sting before winning a club team state title. They each cut their high school careers short, using their senior years to focus more on club competition and the college recruiting circuit.

“[Waldrum] was such a huge draw in the recruiting process, knowing that he was coaching [at Notre Dame],” Barg said. “I had heard such good things about him and then to come here and play under him, I feel like I have learned so much.”

In the last three-plus seasons, the Irish have tallied up a 71-10-4 record under Waldrum and have made three consecutive College Cups, a feat that has come with increased dedication and discipline.

“In club, you can only learn so much because you only practice a few times a week,” Schuveiller said. “But in college you are out here every day and go over things until they are engrained in your mind.”

Schuveiller, the team’s vocal leader, has been a consistent force for Waldrum’s backline throughout her college career, starting in 85 games since coming to Notre Dame. The marketing major also became the first player in Notre Dame women’s soccer history to be voted by her teammates as a three-time captain, even though she calls herself fortunate to have joined her close friends coming out of high school.

“Obviously Mel and Courtney are such amazing players, I was just thrilled to find out that I was going to be on the same team with them,” she said.

Yet accompanied by her humility, Schuveiller brings a tenacity crucial to being a successful defender.

When an Indiana attacker slid in for a rough tackle on the senior defender in Notre Dame’s 4-1 win Sept. 4, Schuveiller was the first to let her opponent know that the challenge was unwarranted — bumping the Hoosier which led to a face-to-face confrontation.

“I had a few choice words with [the Indiana forward] and I had to put her in her place,” Schuveiller said with a grin.

Schuveiller also makes darting runs through the midfield that relies on a fluid connection with Barg — an All-American selection in 2009 — who serves as the offense’s facilitator and heads the Irish’s axis of passing.

“You want to pass the ball in this offense, because you know the players around you are capable of finishing, especially with Jess coming out of the back. She makes so many things happen for us,” said Henderson, a psychology major. “And if we go through Courtney, we can connect to anywhere on the field because she has a feel for where everybody is on the field.”

Henderson, meanwhile, has already scored seven goals for the Irish in seven games, including a hat trick against Indiana to win the adidas Invitational title. The 2010 Hermann Trophy runner-up is currently tied for seventh on the Notre Dame all-time scoring list with 59 career goals and holds the record for most goals in a single postseason with nine in 2009.

She also remains the only high school junior to be awarded the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year in 2007 and was an ESPY nominee this past summer for Best College Female Athlete. And even though the senior from Garland, Texas is the favorite to take this year’s Hermann Trophy for best collegiate soccer player, Henderson’s focus is steadfastly team-oriented as the Irish look to defend their title.

“It’s an honor to be mentioned among all those great players and great teams but it really comes down to how our team is doing and helping us to win games,” the forward said. “Our team is not really worried about how we are perceived by others. Our main focus is playing one game at a time and making sure that we are prepared to play as a team in every aspect of our game.”

The group takes inspiration in Notre Dame alum Shannon Boxx, who represented the runner-up U.S. National Team at the 2011 World Cup.

“It is really cool to see a Notre Dame player representing the United States,” Schuveiller said. “To see her there, knowing that she went through all of the same training and drills that we are currently doing is really exciting.”

Now that the trio has collected a club state championship, a high school state title — between Barg and Schuveiller — and a NCAA national championship, the only thing missing would be a World Cup, a prospect that each of the three dodged with wide smiles and the attitude of a defending champ with conference play coming up.

“We can’t even think that far ahead right now,” Barg said. “Right now we are just focused on the season ahead.”

The prospect of one day uniting under the Stars and Stripes remains bright, but first, after nine years and countless trips, they have a title to defend.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at [email protected]