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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