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ND Women’s Soccer: Laddish, Roccaro lead ‘Baby Irish’ to Elite Eight

Brian Hartnett | Wednesday, May 15, 2013

With 12 freshmen on its roster, Notre Dame entered the season as one of the youngest teams in program history.

Although the team, dubbed the “Baby Irish,” struggled against a tough early non-conference schedule, it hit its stride for the NCAA tournament and won three games before losing 1-0 to then-No. 7 Florida State in the tournament quarterfinals.

“I think the expectations we always have here is that we want to get back to a Final Four,” Irish coach Randy Waldrum said. “We always want to have our program to a point where the goal should be the College Cup every year, and I think we were probably 30 minutes away from that against Florida State. Getting to the Elite Eight, especially with a very young team, I think we were right on target with where we’d hoped to be at the beginning of the year.”

Despite the shift in the team’s composition, the Irish (16-6-2, 8-1-1 Big East) had little time to acclimate to the start of the season, as they faced a strong non-conference slate. Notre Dame endured some difficult growing pains early in the season, as the Irish dropped games to Wisconsin, Washington and then-No. 19 and eventual national champion North Carolina.

But there were also some bright spots for the Irish, such as a victory over then-No. 24 Santa Clara and a draw with then-No. 19 Portland.

“I think we played a difficult schedule and that prepared us for the kind of games we were going to get and prepared us for having to [play] on the road as well,” Waldrum said.

Just before the start of Big East play, Notre Dame received two boots in junior midfielder Mandy Laddish and freshman forward Cari Roccaro, who both missed the early part of the season to play for the gold-medal winning United States squad in the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup.

Bolstered by the additions of Laddish and Roccaro, the Irish tore through the early part of their conference schedule, winning their first seven league matches. Notre Dame finished second in the Big East’s National Division and advanced to the conference tournament’s semifinals, where it lost to then-No. 15 Marquette, 1-0.

The Irish received a bid to the NCAA tournament, where they beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 3-1, in the first round. The team then traveled to Gainesville, Fla., where it upset then-No. 10 Wake Forest, 2-1, in the second round and blanked then-No. 8 Florida, 2-0, to advance to the Elite Eight.

“You hope you have your season planned in a way that you’re peaking at the right time of year, and I think this was one of those years when we did that,” Waldrum said. “Once the NCAA tournament started, we were playing our better soccer toward the end of the year, and I think that’s the way you’d want it.”

Waldrum said the biggest challenges of coaching a young team were inconsistency and the lack of veteran leadership.

“[We had problems] just getting the week-in and week-out and maybe even the day-in and day-out consistency,” he said. “We also had so many young kids that were key players for us this year, and we talked about the standards of the program, but there weren’t a lot of people to show them what the standard was because we were so young.”

Despite their occasional inconsistency and inexperience, several first-year players stepped up for the Irish. Freshman forward Crystal Thomas led the team with 10 goals, while Roccaro was third on the squad with six goals in just 16 games and was named the Soccer America Freshman of the Year. Freshman goalie Elyse Hight was a consistent presence in net for the Irish, posting a goals-against average of 0.63 in 16 starts.

Waldrum said he was impressed with the development of his team over the course of the season but added that Notre Dame still has strides to make.

“I’ll always remember just how much fight and competitiveness this group had as a group of young players,” Waldrum said. “Even though we were playing our best soccer at the end of the year, I think we’re still miles away from playing the way we want to play.”

The Irish lose only one starter, senior defender Jazmin Hall, to graduation and will return the majority of their roster for next season. The team will also begin play in the ACC, a conference which had nine teams selected for last year’s NCAA tournament.

“We’re going to get a challenge every single week, and that wasn’t the case with the Big East,” Waldrum said. “I think kids will really have to rise to the occasion because it’s going to be a battle all the way through.”

Contact Brian Hartnett at [email protected]