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Late goal leads Irish to crucial victory over No. 2 Virginia

Notre Dame took home a landmark win Thursday night, dispatching No. 2 Virginia 1-0 in South Bend.

The win cements the Irish as one of the favorites in a competitive race for an ACC title. It comes against a Cavaliers team that had just defeated previous conference top dog North Carolina. The victory was Nate Norman’s first victory over a top-ten team in twenty one tries as Notre Dame’s head coach.

The pregame rankings couldn’t have been less indicative of how the game played out. Notre Dame asserted themselves early, showing complete comfort in their preferred 3-5-2 formation that struggled the game prior in Clemson. A couple of early chances fell to forward Olivia Wingate. But the graduate student was unable to convert and the teams entered the half tied.

In the second half, the Irish ramped up their pressure and got a goal to show for it. Outshooting the Cavaliers 11-5, Notre Dame seemed emboldened by their strong first half and continually threatened Cayla White in net. 

And while White held her ground for 75 minutes, the Irish eventually broke through on a set piece scramble in front of the goal. A corner kick by sophomore midfielder Korbin Albert found the head of junior midfielder Eva Gaetino, whose deflected header fell perfectly for senior forward Maddie Mercado. Mercado acted quickly, swiping the ball past White and into the back of the net with her first touch.

The final 15 minutes produced plenty of stressful moments for Notre Dame. Head coach Nate Norman made a slew of changes to add defensive stability and fresh legs to the field. But ultimately, the Irish held strong to close out the win. In a mark of an excellent defensive showing, graduate student goalkeeper Mackenzie Wood was only forced to make one save all game, notching her first career ACC clean sheet.

Despite being the lone goal scorer on the night, Mercado was quick to spread the praise for the teams overall performance.

“This team deserves all the recognition,” Mercado said. “One thing we said in the locker room was we wanted to go out like we were possessed, and I think we did that and more. I was there to finish but our team got us there, got us the corner, Gaetino got the header, and I turned and finished. So just a great team win.”

Coach Norman also gave credit to the team’s mentality, as the Irish rallied to the win within a week of a disappointing loss to Clemson in their ACC opener.

“We asked the team before the game to value certain things … I just felt like our energy levels and passion today was such a stark contrast from Thursday to now,” said Norman. “I’m just so proud of how [the team] fought and competed. We needed a game like that to prove to ourselves that we could compete with anyone and tonight was a really good night for us to do that.”

Looking ahead, Notre Dame’s ACC slate seems much more manageable with a win over Virginia under their belt. Tests against Florida State and Duke still loom. But Norman expressed excitement that Thursday’s win could be something of a statement of intent to opposing teams.

“We have a really simple goal,” Norman said. We want to win a national championship. And hopefully a win like this puts us in the conversation, puts us in the group that can do that. We just have to continue on and have some consistency.”

Notre Dame will look to build off their major win with another home clash against Pittsburgh looming Sunday. The game will kick off at 1 p.m. at Alumni Stadium. It will be broadcasted on the ACC Network.