ND Women’s Soccer
For Norman’s Irish, no reason to set the bar low
Greg McKenna | Wednesday, August 25, 2021
Whether it’s to play mind games with the opposition or insure against allegations of underachievement, soccer managers around the world love downplaying expectations to the media.
After missing out on the NCAA Tournament for a second time in three years at a traditional women’s collegiate soccer blue-blood like Notre Dame, many coaches would be wary, at least publicly, of setting the bar too high.
Not Nate Norman.
When I interviewed the Irish head coach last spring after a uniquely grueling nine-month campaign — the ACC went ahead with an abbreviated fall season while the typical developmental spring season was replaced by a slate of critical games due to the postponement of the NCAA Tournament to the spring — he told me that this year’s team would be the most talented squad he’s had during his four years in South Bend.
I am similarly undaunted about encouraging lofty expectations for Norman’s teams.
A year ago today, I wrote that it was time for Notre Dame to “rejoin the elite” of women’s college soccer and advance to the College Cup for the first time since 2010, when the Irish won their third and most recent national title.
In a season of incredibly fine margins, things didn’t turn out that way. A coronavirus-induced pause in the spring meant the Irish had to get results at No. 18 Oklahoma State and No. 7 TCU to have hopes of qualifying for the 48-team Tournament, contracted from the usual 64-team field, but both matches ended in 2-1 defeats.
However, Norman felt that the Irish should have won in Stillwater. If they had, he said Notre Dame would have likely been playing in the Tournament’s last 16.
Under Norman, the Irish have been nothing if not fun to watch, but their ability to dominate the ball, press high and often create a plethora of chances has not always translated into results. Norman has acknowledged this trend on multiple occasions, but I agree with him that the huge leap forward is coming.
Perhaps a College Cup is a bit too much to ask for, but I expect the Irish will surprise a lot of people when they close the regular season with an admittedly brutal five-game stretch. Before hosting Wake Forest in the season finale, the Irish have consecutive games against No. 9 Clemson, No. 3 Virginia, No. 5 Duke and No. 2 North Carolina, the final three of which are on the road.
It’s been a while since the Irish downed a top-5 opponent. But they delivered at No. 13 Louisville last October in what was essentially a must-win game to qualify for the ACC Tournament. Notre Dame thoroughly outplayed the Cardinals for 70 minutes before holding on for a 1-0 victory.
Against top-ranked UNC last year, Notre Dame was the better team early on before eventually succumbing 2-0 in Chapel Hill. But the Irish are now a team that can check off all the necessary boxes.
Sure, the Irish have to be sharper in front of goal this year. Notre Dame managed 1.38 goals per game last season, tied for 129th in the country. That will not cut it if the Irish hope to compete at the summit of the ACC.
Chance creation is rarely a problem for Notre Dame, however, and the abundance of attacking talent at Norman’s disposal makes you believe that the goals will come this year. Graduate student and three-year captain Sammi Fisher, who was able to return thanks to the NCAA’s blanket year of eligibility last season, is one the most dynamic players in the conference.
Watch her goal to open the scoring against Boston College last season, and you’ll understand why Norman has moved the 2020 Second Team All-ACC midfielder to forward for Notre Dame’s first two matches this fall. There is absolutely no doubt that she can finish in front of goal, as she did in the season opener vs. Bowling Green, and she will still drop deep to create or unleash blasts from long range, like her effort that hit the crossbar from over thirty yards out against the Falcons last Thursday.
This should also be a bounce back season for senior forward Olivia Wingate. She only managed one goal in 11 games in 2020-21, but her turn and long-range strike just eight minutes into the new season didn’t look like a goal from a striker lacking in confidence.
Not many teams can say they have a third team all-conference forward waiting in the wings as well. Nobody performs the ‘super sub’ role better then junior Kiki Van Zanten. She led the Irish with seven goals last season and was the only player in the ACC to record a hat-trick last fall. With graduate student and former Icelandic youth international Hulda Osk Jonsdottir also an option off the bench, opposing back lines will have plenty to worry about.
The Irish midfield might have even fewer question marks. Seniors Brianna Martinez and Camryn Dyke join Fisher as returning captains, while juniors Maddie Mercado and Kati Druzina will look to have breakout seasons after making 15 starts between them last season.
Finally, Norman seems to have plenty of faith in Korbin Albert, the 2018-19 ECNL Midwest Player of the Year. Norman has raved about the freshman, who has started both of Notre Dame’s first two games, for her proficiency in possession and desire to take defenders on one on one.
Of course, there are still going to be days when the attack is misfiring. The Irish missed some gilt-edged chances during Sunday’s 0-0 draw against Indiana, but Norman’s relatively young back-three prevented the Hoosiers from mustering a single shot on target.
Forgive the inevitable analogies from a Liverpool fan, but the Irish have their Virgil Van Dijk in Eva Gaetino. Not only is she an imposing force in both boxes at 5-foot-11, but the sophomore also has the athleticism to stay with runners and is more than comfortable springing attacks with the ball at her feet. Against Indiana, the Dexter, Mich., native even exhibited the composure of a center-forward to flick a bouncing ball off a corner kick around a defender before hitting her volley narrowly over the bar.
It’s easy to see why Gaetino started all 13 games as a freshman last season, and Waniya Hudson’s importance at the back is similarly undeniable. The junior led the Irish in minutes played last season, and I’d be willing to put plenty of money down on her earning All-ACC honors at the end of the fall.
Even the least experienced member of the back-three, sophomore Eva Wirtz, still featured in 11 games last season, starting two. With the veteran presence of senior Mattie Interian, who has started 25 games in goal over three seasons for the Irish, behind her, Wirtz should acclimate just fine.
So I’ll refuse to be bashful once again. This team will compete with any program in the country, and they’ll play some of the most progressive, entertaining soccer you can find doing it.
Nate Norman will expect nothing less.