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ND Women’s Soccer

Irish fight through grueling nine-month campaign

| Friday, May 21, 2021

Though the Irish played only 13 games, Notre Dame’s women’s soccer 2020-2021 season was anything but condensed. 

Even though the NCAA tournament was postponed to the spring, the ACC still held a fall season that determined qualification for November’s ACC Tournament, which meant each game in a nine-month slog had critical postseason implications. The traditional structure of a competitive fall campaign followed by a spring season of friendlies was thrown out the window.  

Irish head coach Nate Norman said this made for an unusually grueling year. 

“That’s kind of a mental marathon,” he said, “just to kind of keep going without having an extended developmental season — the chance to take a deep breath and do more of the developmental part instead of always playing every game having such meaning to it.” 

After dropping their season opener 5-0 at eventual ACC champion and national runner-up Florida State in September, the Irish (6-7, 4-4 ACC) rattled off three straight wins, vanquishing Miami, Boston College and Syracuse by a combined score of 10-0. After back-to-back one-goal defeats at home against Wake Forest and Clemson, respectively, the Irish would grab a key victory over then-No. 13 Louisville to help secure the eighth and final qualifying spot in the conference tournament, where they fell to the No. 1-seeded Seminoles 2-0. 

Aiming to earn an NCAA Tournament bid for a second consecutive season, Notre Dame began its spring campaign with back-to-back 2-0 wins at Cincinnati and on Senior Day vs. Missouri, respectively. 

However, road matchups against Kansas and Missouri were canceled after positive tests for COVID and subsequent contract tracing within the Notre Dame program. The Irish ended up narrowly missing out on the 48-team tournament field, condensed from the normal field of 64 due to COVID-19 concerns, after closing the season with consecutive 2-1 losses in Big-12 road matchups. The Irish lost to then-No. 18 Oklahoma State in overtime before having a comeback bid fall short against then-No. 7 TCU in Fort Worth. 

Norman admitted the coronavirus-induced pause came at an inopportune time and said “the wear and tear of that whole spring” made trying to get a result in those final two matches very difficult. 

“But when I do look back on it, I’m proud of the resiliency that we had,” he said. 

Norman also said he was impressed with how his captains and seniors were able to facilitate communication and keep the squad motivated in a year where most team activities outside of practice were held over Zoom. 

All three of Norman’s captains this year, midfielders Sammi Fisher, Brianna Martinez and Camryn Dyke, return next season. 

Fisher, a senior who will take advantage of the NCAA’s blanket year of eligibility, was second on the team with seven points (3G, 1A) in 2020 and led the Irish in goals, assists and points in 2019.

Martinez, a rising senior, has been a consistent starter since her freshman year. 

Dyke, a senior who did not play her freshman year due to injury, appeared in all 13 games this season, tallying one goal and two assists. 

Norman noted that senior forward Erin Ospeck, who appeared in four matches in 2020-21, will also return. 

Norman had plenty of praise for all his departing seniors, especially goalkeeper Jaina Eckert. After four fall seasons without a single appearance, the Georgia native started all four spring matches for the Irish, making 15 saves and recording two clean sheets.

“I’ll be telling her story for the rest of my coaching career,” Norman said. 

Norman added that a lot of student athletes quickly look to transfer if things don’t go their way. But Eckert, he said, just kept “pushing.” 

“Whether it was injuries or whatever she had to deal with her first couple years [or] other players playing ahead of her, she just kept working, and when she got her shot, she took it,” he said. 

Norman cited senior defender Jenna Winebrenner as another player who kept working after initially not receiving much playing time in South Bend. After making just three appearances as a freshman, Winebrenner became a consistent stalwart at the back for Notre Dame from her sophomore year onwards. 

“The last couple years, we would rarely take her off the field,” Norman said. 

He also said he was proud of the Kansas City native’s development not just as a leader in defense, but also as a distributor who could present an attacking threat. Winebrenner notched two goals and three assists during her career. 

“We’re definitely sad to see [her leave] because she’s not only a great player on the field, but just a great piece of our culture,” Norman said. 

The Irish will also look to replace the attacking output of forward Eva Hurm, who scored 10 goals and provided 13 assists during her collegiate career. Norman said Hurm’s status as a mainstay on the Irish attack for four years was not just attributable to her talent, but also her work ethic.

“I think just watching her grow as a player and person for four years has been really rewarding as a coach because she’s certainly been a heck of a player, but [she] became a really good leader in the process,” he said. 

Norman also took the time to praise his seniors who did not see many opportunities on the field but still managed to have a tremendous impact on the program, especially forward Bailey Cartwright. Cartwright only made seven appearances during her collegiate career due to injuries caused by chronic exertional compartment syndrome in both legs, and Norman said she could have quit a long time ago. 

“But she made a commitment to this team and just said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be there,’” he said of Cartwright’s mindset. “‘Regardless of my injury journey, I’m going to be there to serve and I’m gonna love my teammates.’” 

Cartwright founded Stronger Scars, a podcast and platform for athletes to share their stories struggling with injury or mental illness. Her guests have included San Diego Chargers and former Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill and former U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team goalkeeper Tim Howard. 

Norman said Cartwright’s project epitomizes the essence of the program and University. 

“I know it’s impacted a ton of people in our program and a lot of programs right now,” he said. 

Norman had similar praise for defender Kate O’Connor, who only made five appearances in 2020-21 after playing in at least 11 games or more in each of her first three seasons. 

“Kate is really the ultimate genuine teammate,” he said. “She is not someone who tries to put the spotlight on herself and is someone who was like, ‘What can I do for the team?’” 

Looking towards the fall, Norman said he expects an extremely talented incoming class and group of returners to create intense competition for places. As the three-time national champions look to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, Norman said the Irish will focus on converting Notre Dame’s four one-goal defeats this past season into wins. 

“It’s about figuring out how to make those one or two percent gains to make sure that in those games you could win, you take all sense of chance or luck out of it,” he said. “You just make sure that you’re forcing the ball into the back of the net.”

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