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Hefferon: Young team relies on upperclassmen for guidance (Sept. 4)

Jack Hefferon | Monday, September 3, 2012

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Irish are a pretty young team.

If you’ve been reading The Observer (and let’s be honest, of course you have), you may have noticed that we’ve snuck “young,” “freshmen,” “inexperienced” or “underclassmen” into almost every headline about the team this season. Heck, even the story running with this column today is about two freshmen.

And even if you haven’t been following the team this year, the numbers say it all: The current crop of freshmen were the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, and 12 of Notre Dame’s 24 players are freshmen, compared to just two remaining seniors on the roster. The team started seven freshmen Sunday in a marquee matchup against No. 19 North Carolina, and just two upperclassmen – junior midfielders Elizabeth Tucker and Rebecca Twining – cracked the starting 11.

After a five-way competition in the preseason, freshman Elyse Hight emerged to win the starting goalkeeper spot. On Friday, it was freshman forward Crystal Thomas who strode up to bury a first-half penalty kick against No. 24 Santa Clara, and her masterful dribbling sealed the victory in the dying minutes. And the back line – featuring freshmen Brittany von Rueden, Katie Naughton and Stephanie Campo – has held opponents to an average well under one goal per game.

By any measure, clearly, the team’s underclassmen will be the main story this year. But don’t let that fool you.

If Notre Dame is going to return to the elite level of college soccer, it will be the team’s experienced upperclassmen that will make it happen.

They may currently sit outside the top-25, but the Irish are still the coaches pick to win the Big East, and are more than capable of making a run to the College Cup, just as they did when they won it all two years ago.

Three-quarters of the 2012 squad were still in high school when the Irish won that national championship, but tri-captains Tucker, senior defender Jazmin Hall and junior midfielder Mandy Laddish – the only three remaining regulars from that championship squad – were there, and they know what it takes to win when it counts.

And for all the talent this year’s young team possesses, learning how to win games late has been its biggest obstacle so far.

It began in the preseason, when the Irish dominated Baylor, but gave up a goal in the 88th minute to settle for a 1-1 draw. The next weekend, they surrendered a goal to Wisconsin with less than seven minutes remaining to lose 1-0, their first season-opening loss since 1999. The script was the same on Sunday, when the Tar Heels tallied the match’s only score in the 85th minute.

So, much of the production – and headlines – will undoubtedly come from the play of Notre Dame’s youth this season. But if this team is to win the tight games that make or break seasons and string together to form postseason runs, it will have to learn from those who have done it before.

It will certainly take the toughness and overlapping runs from Hall, hustle and possession from Tucker, and the explosiveness of Laddish – once she returns from the U-20 World Cup – to power the Irish to wins.

But more importantly, a successful season will hinge on the leadership of all three captains, plus the team’s other upperclassmen, to provide the squad with the one thing it really lacks: experience.

Now it’s up to us to keep the story straight.