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ND Women’s Soccer

Experience, defense have Irish off to best start since 2008

| Thursday, September 12, 2019

A year ago, the Notre Dame women’s soccer team featured an extremely young starting lineup, and their lack of experience was noticeable, especially on the road. After a 3-0 start, the women would win just five of their remaining 15 tilts. Their composure away from the friendly confines of Notre Dame was less than ideal, as they lost their first four games away from South Bend, giving up twelve goals in the process.
However, as the Irish gained experience, they flashed some of the tantalizing talent that had been overshadowed by their youth; they won three of their final four road games, pushed eventual national runner-up North Carolina to the brink of defeat, and prevailed over NC State, who wound up advancing to the third round of the NCAA tournament. 
Thus, after ending the season by providing hope for the future, Notre Dame entered 2019 with a year of experience and a lot of promise to deliver on. So far in 2019, the Irish have delivered on that promise and then some. Behind a stifling defense and relentless second-half attack, Notre Dame has surged to a 6-0 record including a 3-0 record away from South Bend. That trio of road wins includes a gutsy performance over rival Michigan, where freshman forward Kiki Van Zanten nudged the Irish over the Wolverines with a header in the 87th minute. That win pushed the Irish to 5-0 at the time, the first time they’ve started that well since 2008, a season that resulted in a national championship game appearance.
Allison Thornton | The Observer

Irish senior midfielder Megan McLaughlin dribbles the ball during Notre Dame’s 4-0 win over Saint John’s Sep. 1.

While it is probably too early to create such overwhelming expectations, Notre Dame certainly has the ability to return to the NCAA tournament after missing it last year, and they will look to bring this program back to national relevance once more. 
The Irish have been sharp on offense, especially in the second half; 11 of their 13 goals as a team have come after the break. Their offensive onslaught has been paced by junior forward Eva Hurm (three goals, one assist) and sophomore midfielder Luis Delgado (two goals, three assists). Delgado missed her freshman year due to injury, but her impact thus far in 2019 cannot be understated. Graduate student transfer Autumn Smithers has also chipped in with two goals.
Defensively, the Irish have looked almost unbeatable, with a lone goal surrendered versus Western Michigan being the only blemish on the unit through the first six games. Senior keeper Brooke Littman has been one-half of the dynamic goalkeeping tandem that has helped the Irish post five clean sheets in six efforts. After a strong sophomore year, Littman struggled at times last season, but she has bounced back with flare in her senior year, allowing just the one goal in three games. Sophomore keeper Mattie Interian has recorded three shutouts so far this year, following up a solid freshman campaign with superb play in the early going this season. 

While Interian and Littman deserve plenty of credit for what they’ve done in net, a more experienced Irish defense has been a huge part of this team’s success. The unit is anchored by Shannon Hendricks, a graduate student who has started 46 straight games for the Irish. She is joined by junior Jenna Winebrenner and sophomores Brianna Martinez and Jade Gosar. Hendricks provides the veteran leadership, while her teammates along the back line have looked poised and in control in the early going this season. 
Notre Dame’s 6-0 start has been impressive, and the recent United Soccer Coaches poll had the Irish just a few slots outside the top-25. However, Thursday will be a true test of how seriously the Irish will challenge the top teams this fall as they travel to face No. 7 South Carolina. The Gamecocks have also boasted a nearly unbreakable defense with just a single goal allowed, and they too have scored at a blistering rate (2.8 goals per game).
The Irish have looked unflappable this year, and pulling out a victory in a hostile environment like Michigan serves as good preparation, but the Gamecocks will easily be the best team they’ve faced. Notre Dame has done an excellent job thus far, pulling out a few tough wins and beating several mid-level teams in convincing fashion, but whether they are truly back in full force may be determined on Thursday. 

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

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