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ND Women’s Soccer: Crunch Time

Andrew Gastelum | Friday, October 28, 2011

In Irish coach Randy Waldrum’s 13 years as head coach, never has Notre Dame gone on the road to start the Big East tournament. But this season has been a year of firsts for the defending-national champion Irish, who are now thrust headfirst into the role of underdog heading into a matchup at No. 15 Marquette in the Big East quarterfinals.

“We have never been on the road for a quarterfinal game,” Waldrum said, “but this season has been new and different. To finish third is unusual from us, but we made this bed and we are ready for the challenge.”

This matchup of powerhouse Big East squads brings history, as the Golden Eagles (17-2, 10-1 Big East) contributed to Notre Dame’s early-season struggles with a 3-2 overtime win Sept. 26 in Milwaukee. But Waldrum said the Irish (9-6-3, 6-3-2) view the game as a resume booster for the NCAA tournament rather than an opportunity for revenge.

“Sure the girls have embraced this opportunity to get them again, but we are still battling for a big playoff spot in the NCAA tournament,” Waldrum said. “The picture is much bigger than just the Big East and we are embracing the challenge of it. It’s a legitimate chance to strengthen our NCAA bid and it’s also a chance to catch a really good team early.”

Sophomore forward Maegan Kelly, a member of the 2010 Big East All-Rookie Team, leads the Marquette attack, which ranks first in the Big East in goals, goals per game, assists and points. Kelly has scored 14 goals combined, along with 10 assists this season, to rank second in the Big East behind Irish senior forward Melissa Henderson. Kelly played a key role in the 3-2 overtime win over Notre Dame, chipping in a goal and an assist.

But Waldrum is confident his team has matured greatly since the devastating overtime loss, when the Irish gave up an early goal 30 seconds into the game and the game-winner 18 seconds into overtime.

“We were in a tough spot in the season and we worked so hard on getting rid of those mental lapses, but gave up two early goals,” he said. “We are at quite a different place in the season now.  Having [senior All-American midfielder] Courtney Barg back in the lineup is going to definitely change things. I think we are a different team entirely.

“Our kids have played in really big games this year and I don’t think the crowd is going to affect us. It’s going to come down to being ready to fight for 90 minutes, and I think we are.”

Henderson, who is coming off a school-record tying four-goal performance Oct. 21 against DePaul, leads the Irish attack. The senior, who ranks fifth in the nation with 17 goals, was recently named to the Top Drawer Soccer and “Our Game Magazine” national teams of the week, while earning Big East Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors.

“It was a great way to finish off her home stand here. Every game she is on the brink of having that kind of game. That is just how good she is,” Waldrum said. “[What] a lot of people don’t realize is that she has always had someone else to kind of play off of to carry a lot of the load. This year has basically been about Mel. Teams are just putting double and triple teams on her and try to take her out of the game.”

Waldrum expects his All-American forward to shine heading into her final collegiate postseason, adding that “believing” is the key to the postseason, something the Irish know all too well in the prestigious coach’s tenure.

“We always talk to [Melissa] about being more aggressive. Sometimes she is not selfish enough,” Waldrum said. “We want her to have more of a dagger, and sometimes she doesn’t have that personality, but she has gotten better at it. She knows that she is counted on and she gets that.

“This team has fought every inch of the way and this team has never really given up at all. They believe that when we get to the end, we will be ready for it. We are really talented and had some things not bounce our way, but we believe, and it’s all about believing.”

The Irish face Marquette at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at [email protected]