By J.J. Post and José Sánchez Córdova
It was a dream weekend for Notre Dame women’s soccer, which took a pair of games in the NCAA Tournament on home turf, moving within one win of reaching the College Cup. The party started on Friday night, as the Irish put forth their most dominant showing of the season, steamrolling Santa Clara 4-0 in South Bend.
The Irish got started early, immediately attacking the Bronco net from distance. With midfielder Korbin Albert given an apparent green light to take aim at goal from whenever she deemed fit, the sophomore peppered Santa Clara goalkeeper Marlee Nicolos with shot after shot from distance.
And after nearly 44 minutes of domination on the shot counter but not the scoreboard, Notre Dame broke, through. Some chaos in the box led to graduate student defender Ashley Zugay being dragged down in the box. Albert unsurprisingly took the ensuing penalty, and converted cooly to give Notre Dame a 1-0 lead heading into halftime.
Coming out of the half, the Irish exploded. Albert found a sliver of space at the edge of the box and blasted her second goal of the game by the near post. Just 34 seconds later, freshman midfielder Laney Matriano broke free and uncorked a shot into the corner of the net to put Notre Dame up 3-0 over a seemingly shell-shocked Broncos defense. The goal was Matriano’s first of her collegiate career.
The Irish would find one more goal before full-time, this time off the boot of senior forward Kiki Van Zanten. Albert read a pass in the midfield and charged forward. But this time instead of shooting, she opted to play an incisive through ball across the middle of the Santa Clara defense. The pass found Van Zanten, who beat Nicolos with a neat finish to expand the Notre Dame lead to four.
The 4-0 scoreline was incredibly not nearly indicative of the level of control the Irish enjoyed Friday night. Notre Dame outshot the Broncos by a margin of 40-5, by some distance the gaudiest differential of any round of 32 game. The Irish held possession for nearly the entirety of the second half. Starting Irish keeper, graduate student Mackenzie Wood, made just one save in nearly 80 minutes of action.
The Irish kept rolling on Sunday, beating TCU 2-0 in to advance to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament. The win means the Irish make their first national quarterfinal since 2012 and their first under head coach Nate Norman.
“This is always a tough weekend because you play two games so quickly,” Norman said. “It really tests the resiliency and resolve and your ability to recover and how fit and deep you are. That all paid off for us in this game.”
After her meteoric performance against Santa Clara, Albert was relatively quiet Sunday. The Horned Frogs held her to just two shots, with neither being on target. Instead, graduate student forward Olivia Wingate and senior midfielder Maddie Mercado came through for the Irish with a goal each.
“When teams focus so much on taking [Korbin Albert] away it opens up spaces for other players. You saw Maddie and Liv find that space and get those finishes tonight. So, when teams try to crowd her like that, we try and help her move and find space, but it just allows other players a lot more space to play,” Norman said.
Wingate opened the scoring in the 20th minute. After receiving a pass from Van Zanten, she used her signature speed to get into the box and then calmly slot the opening goal into the bottom left corner of the goal. Mercado’s insurance goal came in the 65th minute on a rocket off her left foot that found the far corner from outside the box.
“I looked over my shoulder and didn’t see anyone near me, so I was just like ‘I’m going to go for it,’” Mercado said.
TCU also had their fair share of chances, taking 10 shots. That included one from midfielder Payton Crews that forced an outstanding diving save from Wood in the 29th minute. The shutout means Notre Dame has yet to concede in the NCAA tournament. The Irish have outscored their opponents 11-0 over the first three rounds.
“It’s doing the simple things and doing them often. That way we limit their chances, block shots and keep it tight in the box. If we do all that it’s going to be really difficult for someone to score on us,” Norman said.
The triumph has earned Notre Dame a quarterfinal matchup against the 18-4-1 North Carolina Tar Heels, who beat BYU Saturday to advance. It will be the first meeting between the two teams this year despite the shared conference. And, as the top seed, the Irish will host the showdown next Saturday. UNC shared the ACC regular season title with Florida State but lost to the Seminoles in the ACC tournament final.
“I think we all have a chip on our shoulder going into that game. We’re excited,” Mercado said. “We wanted to see them in ACC play, but figured we’d see them in the tournament. It’s exciting because obviously, they’re a very talented team, but so are we. It’s going to be a big week of preparation and we’re really excited to get after them.”
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