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College Cup hunting: Irish face storied rival in Elite Eight

Notre Dame women’s soccer will look to advance to its first College Cup since 2010 Saturday night when they take on the North Carolina Tar Heels in South Bend.

The Tar Heels and Irish matchup is one of the most storied rivalries in women’s college soccer history. The two teams have played in the NCAA final no less than five times and in the semi-finals three more times. 

But Saturday’s showdown will be a rekindling of a rivalry that, at least on the stage of the national tournament, had since fallen dormant. Notre Dame hasn’t played UNC in the national postseason since 2010, coincidentally the last time the Irish captured the national championship.

As one would imagine from a program that historically has not only been the gold standard but the only standard for women’s college soccer, the 2022 edition of the Tar Heels represents Notre Dame’s toughest test of the season thus far. 

Junior Avery Patterson headlines a stacked North Carolina squad, with the versatile “midfielder” capable of lining up just about anywhere on the field as needed. Patterson leads the Tar Heels in goals and is tied for the team lead in assists, underlying the impact she has on the team from her wingback role. 

Redshirt freshman Ally Sentnor leads the line, with nine goals on the season to her name. She’s partnered with veteran senior Isabel Cox, who brings four years of experience in Anson Dorrance’s system to the table.

Tori Hansen anchors the defense, with the senior Raleigh looking like a surefire pick in the upcoming NWSL draft. Hansen offers a physical presence in the air at 5’10’’, but more importantly, will be leaned on to organize and lead an unconventional three-at-the-back Tar Heel defensive structure that requires perfection in chemistry to operate at its best. Hansen, who also has an impressive seven goals to her name, has hardly ever left the field for UNC this season, having played nearly 1,981 minutes. No other player on the roster, including starting goalkeeper Emmie Allen, has played more than 1,800.

Hansen and co. will likely also be facing their toughest task of the season in containing Notre Dame sophomore Korbin Albert. Albert has vaulted her way into pole position for the Mac Hermann award down the stretch of the 2022 campaign, dropping statement performances against Florida State in the ACC semifinals and Santa Clara in the Round of 32. 

TCU was able to have some success in Notre Dame’s Sweet Sixteen victory man-marking Albert. However, that strategy allowed space for Irish graduate student forward Olivia Wingate and senior midfielder Maddie Mercado. Both grabbed a goal apiece in a 2-0 win. 

The one thing the Irish will have going for them in their quest to return to Cary for the College Cup is the home-field advantage they’ve defended all season. The Irish have only lost one game at home this year, and Sunday’s win over TCU boosted the program to a staggering 47-2-1 record in South Bend in November. While Saturday’s weather forecast doesn’t call for the tundra-like snow and chill of last weekend, Notre Dame is most comfortable in front of its home fans and will look to build off that boost against the Tar Heels.

Notre Dame will take on North Carolina at 5 p.m. Saturday at Alumni Stadium. The match will be broadcasted on ESPN+.

Contact J.J. Post at jpost2@nd.edu

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Sports

“That’s why we named him the starter”: Buchner ushers in new era against the Buckeyes

When he was first signed at Notre Dame, quarterback Tyler Buchner’s talent was lauded as the saving grace that would replace the stability that Ian Book brought to the Irish football program during his time in the position. When the former QB1 had played out his eligibility after having been the starter for three years, questions immediately arose about who would — and could — fill that position. Enter Buchner, a fellow Californian, four-star recruit that seemed ready to step into the role.

That was until graduate transfer Jack Coan entered the mix, unleashing the quarterback battle that ensued during the 2021-2022 season. With the position shifting between Buchner, Coan and junior Drew Pyne, the once straight path for the sophomore blurred slightly. But despite any uncertainty and doubt, it seems Buchner has won out and has become the sole man for the job.

That same uncertainty and doubt, however, followed Buchner into this season opener. After a year of experiencing several different quarterback combinations — often multiple in a single game — having a starter preestablished in fall camp was a shocking reality for Irish fans. Especially when it was one who did not play in the spring Blue and Gold game due to injury. Yet in the season opener, in his first game fully at the helm, Buchner has proven that although he may not yet be perfect in the position, he has great capacity to be.

Buchner exhibited both his run and pass game against the Buckeyes; he racked up 177 passing yards and a net 18 yards in rushing, nearly as much as sophomore running back — and sole touchdown scorer — Audric Estime’s 21 yards. He did so without a turnover, as head coach Marcus Freemen noted in his post-game press conference, which cannot be said for Coan’s or Book’s first games as starters for the Irish.

“I’m pleased with him,” Freeman said. “But the biggest thing I’m pleased with is zero turnovers.”

Aside from starting out on an even better foot than his predecessors, Buchner also had to adapt to the changing landscape on the field, shifting from the original idea to run both the ball and the clock, as Freeman said was their game plan heading into Saturday night. When his passing game was instead called upon, Buchner was able to capitalize on several opportunities for yardage gain, despite throwing some incomplete passes. 

In response to these mistakes, Buchner emphasized that it is the small facets of the game that eventually add up to how well a player or team performs.

“At the end of the day, it sort of comes down to execution and, you know, the little things,” Buchner said. “We didn’t do little things at the level of which, you know, the standard at which we hold ourselves to.”

In terms of execution, Buchner being a first-time quarterback was cause for concern, as he enters this new role in a highly anticipated matchup against one of the top teams in the country. However, Freeman noted that his adaptability and confidence prevented the moment from overwhelming him and instead, he rose to the challenge.

“That’s why we named him the starter,” Freeman said.

He demonstrated these qualities from the opening drive of the game, which ended in a field goal attempt that put the Irish on the board first. His rocket pass to sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. set the tone for what could be under Buchner’s leadership.

This confidence, Buchner said, is bolstered by his teammates. After having gone eight for eight at the start of the game, he noted how the offense was starting to gel based on their trust in each other and their abilities.

“Luckily, I’ve got a great support staff around me. Awesome teammates,” Buchner said. “They played really well. And so you know, having the confidence that, you know, the guys around me are going to execute and do their job well certainly helped.”

Buchner also acknowledged his equal responsibility in this system. When asked about the offensive line, Buchner said that it is his job to be in the correct protection, too. This rapport Buchner has with his offense gives Freeman high hopes for the quarterback’s future at Notre Dame.  

“He’s going to be a really great football player and a great leader for us,” Freeman said.

Emily DeFazio

Contact Emily at edefazio@nd.edu