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ND Women’s Soccer

Hoonhout: Resilient Irish head into NCAA tournament

| Thursday, November 10, 2016

Flash back to August. After finishing sixth in the ACC last year, only returning six players with nine starts or more, and losing their two top returning scorers in sophomore Natalie Jacobs and junior Sabrina Flores, it looked like this season was going to be a tough one for the Irish.  But while the experts said sixth once again, 20 games later, Notre Dame is a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and ACC regular-season champion for the first time ever.

What happened?

While this is not the most talented and certainly not the most hyped team the Irish have ever had, one thing that has certainly stood out this year has been its resilience. Time and time again, Notre Dame has been able to grind out results, even against more talented opponents. With only three losses to account for, this squad has been incredibly consistent in making sure that it isn’t bested by teams, and the 10-match unbeaten streak that lasted from Aug. 29 to Oct. 9 highlights this perfectly. It’s simple — when the Irish have enough, they eke out the win, and when it’s not their night, they don’t lose.

It all starts with the defense, led by goalie and senior captain Kaela Little. Despite losing three of the four starters from last year, including both starting center backs, the Irish have been incredibly consistent and dominant throughout the year. Their .428 goals against average is good enough for sixth in the country, and considering the offenses that the Irish have faced and kept clean sheets against, that is no small feat. Especially versus Stanford, who is currently ranked seventh with 2.47 goals per game, and Clemson, who ranks 19th. Notre Dame only allowed one penalty-kick goal at home all year. Considering the Irish can play their first three matches of the tournament at home, if there’s one thing that will help Notre Dame have a deep run in this tournament, it will be the stalwart defensive performances that have become part of this team’s DNA.

Offensively, the Irish don’t score a lot of goals, which is understandable considering the losses of Jacobs and Flores. But senior captain Kaleigh Olmsted has stepped up in a huge way, and highly-touted freshman Jennifer Westendorf has also impressed. While Notre Dame’s largest margin of victory this year was 4-0, eight of their 13 wins have been 1-0. Once again, this team just finds a way to get results, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why it finished first in a conference that had six teams in the final top 25 rankings. While Westendorf has led the way with six goals and 71 shots, the Irish have gotten goals from nine different players this year, a testimony to the how much of this season has been team-oriented.

In September, Notre Dame went on a three game road trip, and drew every single game, even after double overtime. After 1-1 tie with Syracuse, Irish head coach Theresa Romagnolo said, she wanted her team to play with more poise.

“What we need to see is more consistency in performance, and so I know we’re young, but you can only keep saying you’re young for so long before you need people to step up and make experienced decisions,” Romagnolo said.

Looking back on it, however, that consistency was forged right there. The fact that a young team like this, still trying to find its identity, was able to go on the road and battle for 120 minutes and not lose three straight times was so important for the Irish. Notre Dame started off the year by learning not how to lose, and when conference play rolled around, it learned how to win. The one common denominator has been resiliency, and with the tournament fast approaching, Notre Dame has been baptized in fire and emerged from the ashes.

If this year has taught me one thing, it’s not to rule out the underdog.

Let’s see where this underdog ends up.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

Contact Tobias