Top 10 moments in Observer sports history
Aidan Thomas | Wednesday, November 3, 2021
Notre Dame has a proud history in athletics. As we reflect on the 55-year anniversary of the Observer, virtually every sport could merit its own list of historical top 10 moments. From national championships to drought-breaking wins, to heroic individual performances, Notre Dame has left a shamrock-shaped stamp on the history of collegiate sports. So we’re here to celebrate the 55 years of the Observer with the top 10 moments of Notre Dame athletics in those five-and-a-half decades.
Creating this list was certainly an interesting task, as separating a bevy of praiseworthy accomplishments was incredibly difficult. National championships had to be weighted at a certain level, as did upsets. However, not every moment here is a championship-winning effort – some just were incredibly historic moments from a specific program, while others produced thrilling memories that captured the attention of the Notre Dame fanbase.
As we get into the list, a few honorable mentions are worth noting, as creating a top 10 list was impossible to accomplish without first considering the efforts that just missed this list. Such performances include the 1966 football National Championship, the men’s basketball team reaching back-to-back Elite Eights — coupled with an ACC title — in 2015 and 2016, and Cal Peterson setting an NCAA-record 87 saves in an eventual five-overtime loss and the famous Joe Montana Chicken Soup Game, in which the Irish claimed the 1979 Cotton Bowl on the shoulders of their ill quarterback. Finishing just off the list was the 2010 women’s soccer national championship — it was difficult to pick between three Irish titles in this sport, as all were dominant seasons and performances, but the 2010 championship moved Notre Dame into second all-time, joining UNC as the only other program with three or more women’s soccer championships.
With the honorable mentions having been given their shoutout, let’s delve into those accomplishments which made the top 10 list.
- Notre Dame Men’s and Women’s Golf Break Drought
Admittedly, this one is slightly cheating the definition of a top ten ‘moment’ as they happened in different years, but they involved such amazing efforts from two programs that hadn’t experienced national success in a long time — if at all.
In 2004, the Notre Dame men’s golf team broke a 38-year NCAA Tournament drought with an absolutely thrilling comeback in the Big East Championships. Trailing defending conference champions Virginia Tech by five strokes entering the final round of play, the Irish made up just one in the first nine holes. However, in a miraculous effort, the Irish lapped the Hokies by a ten-stroke margin on the back nine to claim the title and qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Making the victory more sweet was that it took place at Warren Golf Course — the home for the Irish golfers. Annie Brusky had the coverage in 2004.
In 2011, Notre Dame women’s golf added their own drought-breaking accomplishment, qualifying for the first NCAA tournament in program history. The victory was less dramatic, as Notre Dame led throughout the event and claimed a 13-shot victory. But the breakthrough under head coach Susan Holt paved the way for groundbreaking success for the program — the women’s golf team has gone on to make the NCAA Tournament in 10 of the past 12 years. Just over a decade ago, it was Vicky Jacobson detailing women’s golf outstanding accomplishment.
- Fencing Dynasty
Notre Dame has created a reputation for themselves as a fencing school with their recent success. Both the men’s and women’s programs had established their own success before the sport changed to co-ed championships. The Irish were a constant presence, winning titles in 1994, 2003, 2005 and 2011. But just in the last five years, the Irish have begun to establish a true dynasty. Spurred by back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018, the Irish have claimed three national titles in five years (with one national championships having been cancelled).
In 2017, Notre Dame dominated the competition with a 25-point victory, with a record-setting 186 points. A year later, the Irish reloaded after being hit hard by graduation and notched a 185-point effort in the national championships to claim consecutive championships. In 2021, the Irish returned to the top with an otherworldly individual performance, claiming four of six individual titles. They broke their record by recording 201 points in the 2021 championships.
- 1973 Sugar Bowl
The 1973 Irish were a dominant force in college football. Having not won a national title since 1966, Notre Dame opened the season ranked eighth in the country. Only one opponent in the regular season stayed within a possession of the Irish, as the boys in the blue and gold ran roughshod over their schedule. This set up an undefeated Sugar Bowl clash with No. 1 Alabama.
There are a lot of classic games in the vaunted history of Notre Dame football, but the 1973 Sugar Bowl ranks among the best. Notre Dame led for the majority of the contest, but it was a back-and-forth affair. The game featured two missed extra points, a 93-yard kickoff return from the Irish, and a quarterback touchdown reception for a late 23-21 Alabama lead. Late in the game, the Irish would regain a 24-23 lead with just over four minutes to go on a field goal.
The Irish got a stop but were pinned on their own one-yard-line, facing a 3rd and 10. Risking a safety that would have lost the game, Notre Dame put the game in the hands of their offense by attempting a pass. In one of the most famous individual plays in Irish history, quarterback Tom Clements found backup tight end Robin Weber on a long pass to get the first down and help Notre Dame run out the clock. Notre Dame subsequently was named the national champion by the Associated Press.
- Notre Dame Hockey Cardiac Kids
One of the more electric monikers ever associated with a Notre Dame team, the 2018 Irish hockey squad earned this nickname with an absolutely stunning five consecutive postseason victories that came on game-winning goals in overtime or the final minute of regulation. Although the pursuit of a national championship came up short on the final leg of the journey, the Irish took home a conference championship in their inaugural Big 10 season and enraptured Irish fans across campus and across the country.
The streak was even more unlikely after Notre Dame skidded to end the regular season, losing four of their final five games. Then the Irish beat Penn State in the Big 10 semis on a goal with 31 seconds to go, followed by an overtime victory to claim the conference title versus Ohio State. The momentum carried into the NCAA Tournament, with an overtime conquest of Michigan Tech, and a game-winner with 27 seconds to play against Providence.
Bumping this absurd streak up to #7 on the list was the Final Four victory for the Irish. Against rival Michigan, the Irish went down 2-0 early, but fought back and the score was eventually leveled at 3-3. Then, when overtime felt inevitable, Jake Evans converted a last-second offensive opportunity, scoring with six seconds to play. Evans’s iconic arms-raised celebration as the Irish celebrated a Frozen Four victory over a historic rival cemented the Cardiac Kids’ spot on this list.
- Yared Nuguse In 2019
Nuguse has enjoyed incredible success throughout his Notre Dame career, but his 2019 campaign was something special, particularly in the outdoor season. Nuguse led the distance medley relay team to ACC and National titles, as they were named All-Americans. Individually, Nuguse starred in the 1500 meter race. He claimed the ACC title in this event as well and went into the national championships harboring hopes of claiming the ultimate honor.
With about a hundred meters to go, Nuguse was running in fourth place, attempting to maintain pace in a lead pack of five athletes. However, as it turned out, that pace became unnecessary, as Nuguse’s finishing kick was unbelievable. Trailing by several meters in the final 50, Nuguse quickly made up the ground and with a lean, he completed a huge comeback to become the national champion. Nuguse has gone on to set the NCAA record in the event (3:34.68) and met the Olympic standard, although a pre-race injury prevented him from competing in Tokyo. A fantastic career, punctuated by this outstanding effort as a sophomore in 2019 earned Nuguse the #6 spot on this list.
- Men’s Basketball Breaks’ UCLA’s 88-game winning streak
Although meetings nowadays are rare occasions, Notre Dame and UCLA used to boast a ferocious basketball rivalry. The Irish and Bruins battled it out several times a year, with a bevy of instant classics joining the litany of clashes between the programs over the seasons. The Irish, however, enjoyed no greater victory than in January of 1974. Notre Dame welcomed UCLA to South Bend, with the Bruins sporting an 88-game winning streak.
Down 11 points with under four minutes to play, the Irish didn’t appear likely candidates to prevent UCLA from stretching the streak to 89 games. Notre Dame also had trailed by 17 points on multiple occasions. However, a full-court press frazzled the Bruins, as, after an Irish basket, they failed to get the ball past midcourt twice, and Notre Dame converted both turnovers into points. Down by just five, the Irish continued to harass UCLA, inducing a pair of traveling calls and scoring two more baskets to trim the deficit to 70-69. Then, Notre Dame drew a charging foul and made the eventual game-winner with 29 seconds to play. They held UCLA scoreless over the final 3 minutes and 32 seconds, ending on a 12-0 run to shock the world. The victory came just 20 days after Notre Dame beat Alabama in the aforementioned 1973 Sugar Bowl, making it a celebratory month of athletic achievements in South Bend. Matt Lozar looked back on the victory for the Observer.
- Arike Ogunbowale’s back-to-back buzzer-beaters
Every basketball player dreams of hitting buzzer-beaters at the biggest stage, and for collegiate stars, there is no bigger stage than the Final Four. And Arike Ogunbowale not only accomplished that dream — she did it twice. First, against historic rival UConn in the semifinals, Ogunbowale put on a show, scoring 27 points in the high-scoring affair. After the Irish forced overtime, the game was tied 89-89 late in the extra period, Ogunbowale dribbled until the clock went under five seconds, jabbed toward the basket, and pulled up for the game-winning jumper. One second remained, but UConn couldn’t find the basket, and Notre Dame advanced to the national championship.
The title game was lower scoring, but the Irish trailed by 13 at the half. They staged a furious third-quarter rally to tie the score, which remained the case down the stretch. Mississippi State missed a shot with 25 seconds to go, and the Irish corralled the rebound. But with seven seconds to play, the Irish turned it over, seemingly signaling the Irish’s doom. However, Notre Dame forced a turnover on a wild fast break attempt and got the ball back with three seconds to play. The Irish ran an inbounds play and Ogunbowale got the short pass, dribbled and launched a slightly off-balance three from close to the corner. The shot swished through and the Irish claimed their second national title. Ogunbowale’s heroics will forever go down as among the clutchest postseason efforts in the history of Notre Dame athletics.
- Molly Seidel’s landmark victories
Molly Seidel will forever go down as one of the greatest athletes in Notre Dame history. Her accomplishments for both the Irish and the USA national team earn her a deserved legacy as one of the best to ever compete for the Irish, regardless of sport. Seidel dominated ACC competition during her time at Notre Dame, but it was in 2015 that she took the next step. Competing in the 1000 meter race, Seidel claimed the first-ever individual national title for the women’s program. She wasn’t done there, however, continuing her landmark accomplishments into 2016 and adding a pair of indoor national titles to her name, these in the 3000 and 5000-meter races. Her efforts earned her the Mary Garber Award, given to the top female athlete in the ACC.
Seidel continued to stun the world after her collegiate career. In her first-ever marathon, she made Team USA. The Olympic event was only her third-ever marathon — and she claimed the bronze medal. She was the first American woman to medal in the event in 17 years. In the world of athletics, Seidel remains a Fighting Irish and American legend.
- The 2001 Women’s Basketball Championship
Notre Dame women’s basketball had come close before 2001, reaching the final in 1997. The men’s program had had similar frustration with close calls, and all-in-all, the victory on the national stage eluded the Irish on the hardwood. Until 2001. After reaching at least the Sweet 16 in three of five years, and seeing several stars suffer tough injuries, the Irish broke through. Current coach Niele Ivey had suffered two torn ACLs, while other stars like Ruth Riley had also struggled to stay on the court. However, in 2001, the senior-laden Irish were ready to roll and dominated the regular season, with just two losses.
After cruising through the early stages of the NCAA Tournament, the Irish faced some major adversity. They went down by 15 points in the Final Four, and Ivey played through a sprained ankle to lead a big comeback. Against Purdue in the title, the Irish again trailed by over ten points and they were down by eight with 12 minutes to play. They clawed their way back and took the title on a pair of Riley free throws with five seconds on the clock. The timing of the championship was key for the Irish, who had been struggling in football, where they were traditional powerhouses. The reaction from the South Bend community — mobbing Main Circle, both students and locals alike — really proved the significance of this championship.
- Notre Dame Football’s 1988 Season
This one brings so many fond memories to Irish fans. Their last national championship in football, the Irish made sure the ’88 season was an absolute classic. The season featured a host of highlights, starting with a 19-17 victory over No. 9 Michigan, as the Irish claimed a victory in the rivalry series. With a 5-0 record, the fourth-ranked Irish took on No. 1 Miami, in a game that earned that rivalry series the name of “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Notre Dame won a heated and testy battle 31-30, putting them in a position to challenge for a national championship.
’88 was the prime of the Lou Holtz era, and they proved it with four top-10 wins that season. After dominating three more opponents, the Irish went on the road and slammed No. 2 USC 27-10. That made for three major rivalry wins for the Irish, leaving them a Fiesta Bowl victory away from the title. There, the Irish made quick work of No. 3 West Virginia, jumping out to a huge advantage early on and cruising to a 34-21 victory. Soon, maybe the Irish will claim another title on the gridiron and the ’88 season will no longer be the top memory in Irish history, but for now, this amazing season remains a great memory and an all-time classic.