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Irish vanquish Valparaiso to start NCAA Tournament run

| Monday, November 13, 2023

Arianna Denning
The Notre Dame women’s soccer team celebrates a goal during a game against Wake Forest at Alumni Stadium on Sep. 15.

On Saturday, Notre Dame women’s soccer began its NCAA tournament run with a 2-0 win over Valparaiso at Alumni Stadium. The Beacons proved a relatively tough draw for the third-seeded Irish, who didn’t score until the 49th minute. 

Valpo entered the match fresh off a surprising four-game run to the Missouri Valley Conference title, riding four clean sheets from Nikki Coryell, one of the best mid-major goalkeepers out there. Beacon supporters, driving an hour east to South Bend, made their presence known at the game, somewhat rattling the Irish according to head coach Nate Norman.

“These are tricky games because all the pressure is really on you,” Norman said. “You don’t try to talk about it leading up to [the game], but you don’t want to be that team. Sometimes that makes you be a little bit tight on your finishes, but I thought we did so many wonderful things today.”

Those wonderful things equated to a 33-1 advantage in the shot column. The Irish controlled the game’s tempo for its duration, winning just about every 50-50 ball. Their freshman keeper Atlee Olofson never faced a shot on target en route to her fifth shutout of the season.

“We moved the ball well, we created so many chances, we pressed, we counter-pressed, I thought we were gritty,” Norman said. “I thought it was a really good overall performance, so I’m really proud of that.”

However, of Notre Dame’s 18 first-half shots, none found the back of the net. Players like graduate student forward Maddie Mercado, who ended the night with a career-high 10 shots, regularly carved up Valpo’s defense but couldn’t finish. 

Meanwhile, senior midfielder Ellie Ospeck and graduate student midfielder Kiki Van Zanten forced spectacular saves from Coryell. Ospeck used her acceleration to burn defenders and get in tight, while Van Zanten fired rockets from the edge of the 18-yard box. But the visiting keeper held her ground every time. 

“It can definitely be frustrating,” Ospeck said of the first half. “Just staying in the moment really helps, and having a short-term memory – not focusing too hard on shots you may have missed or hit over or whatever.”

As the match reached halftime scoreless, Valparaiso found itself in familiar territory. During the MVC Tournament, the Beacons won all four games by a 1-0 score with three of those tilts scoreless after 45 minutes. Even with all the Irish chances, one Valpo breakthrough could have put the home favorite on the ropes. Norman outlined his halftime message, which kept Notre Dame firmly on the attack.

“Calm yourself down and just keep moving the ball. The spaces are gonna open up because [the Beacons] will get more tired as the game wears on,” Norman said. “And I thought we did a good job of really swinging the ball and connecting past the player next to you, and the spaces really opened up.”

Four minutes into the second half, Notre Dame broke through. Freshman midfielder Morgan Roy, advancing up the right side of the field, found Ospeck all alone from 7 yards out. With a quick flick of the left foot, she beat Coryell through the wickets for her fifth goal of the season.

“As a team, we were able to have so many chances so it was awesome to put one away finally,” Ospeck said. “I think the team was really excited, and we were able to get more momentum going forward and really focus on hitting more shots on target.”

But before the Irish could build that momentum, Valparaiso tested them in transition. Though they never got a shot, the Beacons battled directly with Nate Norman’s experienced backline for the first time all night.

“I think that was an interesting time of the game because [the Beacons] were starting to open themselves up a little bit more and commit more numbers forward,” Norman reflected. “But I think we always felt like the way we were gonna close the game off was by getting another goal. Maybe we shouldn’t have kept it that open, but we just felt like the second goal was coming, so we maybe allowed a couple too many transition moments.”

Once the Beacons’ surge subsided, Notre Dame dealt the visitors an 83rd-minute death blow. After Van Zanten lost her dribble on the right side of the 18, Valpo lost track of Charlie Codd. The freshman forward stepped to the loose ball, taking a deflected shot that rang the left post and trickled in. From there, the Irish cruised through the final seven minutes, earning their 74th postseason victory as a program.

With the win, Notre Dame likely bids farewell to Alumni Stadium for the 2023 season. The Irish must travel to Fayetteville for the 32-team and 16-team rounds, hosted by the University of Arkansas. The Razorbacks, who tied Notre Dame on Aug. 27, eliminated the third-seeded 2021 Irish team in the Round of 16.

“I think familiarity is a huge thing,” Norman said. “We didn’t get out of that four-team pod last time we went [to Fayetteville]. A lot of times the world doesn’t give you a chance at redemption, and the world’s giving us a chance at redemption this time.”

Notre Dame will face No. 6 seed Memphis on Friday, November 17th in the Round of 32. Two hours after the Irish advanced Saturday, the Tigers followed suit with a 2-1 takedown of LSU. The winner of that match will face either seventh-seeded Pittsburgh or second-seeded Arkansas on Sunday, November 19th.

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About Tyler Reidy

Tyler is a sophomore who serves as an Associate Sports Editor at The Observer. Hailing from Omaha, Nebraska, and Keough Hall, he enjoys road trips, all things collegiate athletics and Kansas City barbecue. Reach out here or @TylerJReidy on Twitter!

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