Oct. 30, 2006
By Ken Kleppel
One day the light bulbs atop the "# 1" structure affixed to the roof of Grace Hall may just burn out. Until that happens, though, women's athletic programs at Notre Dame have no plans to change their winning ways.
At a university where football is the undisputed king, the thirteen women's programs have carved their own niche in the landscape of Notre Dame athletics. Three of them--soccer, basketball, and fencing--have done so by winning national championships.
And a common thread binds the direction of several of these championships. Recruit top student-athletes that help accelerate the program's growth - Cindy Daws, Ruth Riley, and Mariel Zagunis - to name a few. Overcome rivals that dominate the sport -- North Carolina, Connecticut, and Penn State, respectively. Beat the odds in close games to win the championship -- penalty kicks to beat UCLA, double-digit comebacks over Connecticut and Purdue, and a record-setting turnaround on the last day of competition to upend defending national champions, for example.
The women's soccer program provides the perfect first illustration.
Notre Dame Women's Soccer: 1995 and 2004 National Championships Book-End Decade of Championships
A suffocating defense and a flair for the dramatic was the formula for the 1995 women's soccer team. With 1-0 victories over nine-time defending champion North Carolina and undefeated Portland, the women's soccer program claimed its first national championship in, fittingly, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
A year earlier, Notre Dame ended North Carolina's 92-game winning streak by playing the Tar Heels to a scoreless draw and propelling Notre Dame to its first No. 1 ranking. But in the NCAA Finals, North Carolina's experience proved too much to overcome as the Tar Heels shut out the Irish in the championship final.
The same script was written in 1995, but this time the ending was a happy one. In front of the then-largest crowd to attend a collegiate women's soccer game, Notre Dame shut-out North Carolina 1-0 on their own turf, where the Tar Heels had lost only once over the prior 17 seasons.
Two days later, Notre Dame outlasted an undefeated Portland squad 1-0 behind junior midfielder Cindy Daws' free-kick goal with just five minutes into the first sudden-death period, after two scoreless halves and overtime periods. The Irish finished the season with a 21-2-2 record, and did not surrender a goal in six post-season games.
"It was a difficult task that we faced at the time but we had a special team," says former head coach Chris Petrucelli, who is now head coach at Texas. "The players thought they were going to win. You could never know if they were nervous. They always engaged each other's company and were very loose."
Lightning would strike again in 2004. This time under head coach Randy Waldrum, Notre Dame became the second Division-I program to claim a second women's soccer national championship. The Irish spent six weeks as the top-ranked team in the nation and finished with the best record in program history (25-1-1) with a win total that had only been previously bested by three teams in NCAA history. And the second championship clincher was somehow more dramatic than the first.
Notre Dame beat UCLA on penalty kicks 4-3 after playing to a 1-1 score after 110 minutes of regulation and overtime. Forward Katie Thorlakson, who earlier in the season bypassed an opportunity to compete for Canada in international competition to remain on the Irish roster, scored a game-tying goal on a penalty kick in the 73rd minute to send the contest into overtime. With each team scoring three of its five penalty kicks, the game went into sudden victory. Midfielder Jill Krivacek found the back of the net, and goalkeeper Erika Bohn stopped one final shot and the program had its second national championship.
"We had a good foundation, we have done an outstanding job in recruiting, and we have a great staff that brings energy and enthusiasm," says Waldrum.
Since 1994, the program has appeared in five title games and its players have won All-American honors on 36 occasions, including first-team honors eleven times. Twelve former players participated in the first three seasons of the now defunct Women's United Soccer Association. Sixteen players have competed on Olympic and National Teams, collectively representing Mexico, Finland, Iceland, Canada, and the United States.
"We hope we are a benchmark of women's athletics here," says Waldrum. "The women's sports programs on campus bring something more to the University. National championship teams allow women athletes to have a higher profile on campus."
Like the soccer program, the basketball program upset a long-time rival and defending champion in the national semifinal before winning in dramatic fashion to claim its first national title.
Notre Dame Women's Basketball: Captivating Team's Magical 2000-01 Season Ends With National Championship
Known as the Gateway to the West, the city of St. Louis, Missouri, hosted the 2001 NCAA Final Four. And blocking the entry to a national championship was long-time rival and defending national champion Connecticut and intra-state rival and Big Ten Champion Purdue.
Notre Dame and Connecticut had met two prior times over the course of the 2000-01 campaign. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in front of the program's first sell-out Joyce Center crowd and a national television audience, the Irish earned their first ever win over Connecticut 83-56. Prior to that game, Connecticut had won thirty straight contests and had been ranked No. 1 for thirty consecutive weeks. The Huskies returned the favor in the BIG EAST Tournament final, however, connecting on a last-second buzzer beater to break a tie as time expired.
But the trilogy's final act belonged to Notre Dame. Overcoming a sixteen-point deficit, Notre Dame scored 53 second-half points and held Connecticut to just 23.7 percent shooting over the final 20 minutes to cruise to a 90-75 win and earn the biggest comeback in Final Four history.
Two days later, against Purdue, Notre Dame came back from a 12-point deficit to claim its first national championship in its school-record 34th win. Ruth Riley, who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, finished her brilliant career with 28 points, 13 rebounds, seven blocks, and two timeless free throws to break a 66-66 tie with just 5.8 seconds remaining.
"It may not have been our most talented team, but the players had the best chemistry of any team I have ever coached," says McGraw. "I cannot begin to describe the emotion of the experience. It did not even seem real, it was amazing."
Equally amazing was the way in which the roster captured the attention of the entire campus, the greater South Bend community, and the entire Notre Dame nation.
At the end of each game, young girls waited in lines to talk to and receive an autograph from Riley, a Macy, Ind., native, who patiently obliged with all requests until the arena emptied. Fans chanted the name of Karen Swanson, a sophomore walk-on who became a fan favorite with her work ethic and perseverance.
The admiration was returned. Virtually the entire roster reached out to various organizations and groups serving those in need in the South Bend community.
"They were great in how they went out and performed community service," says McGraw. "But they were such great role models. They never played to the crowd or pumped their fists, but they just did their job. It was a team that everybody could relate to."
Accolades accompanied the players on the court, as well. Four starters from the team were selected in WNBA Drafts--Ruth Riley, Niele Ivey, and Kelly Siemon (2001 Draft), and Erica Haney (2002 Draft). Riley led the Detroit Shock to WNBA Championships in 2003 and 2006, and was named MVP of the WNBA Finals after scoring a career-high 27 points in the decisive third game in `03. Riley also competed as a member of the 2004 Senior National Olympic Team that won the gold medal in Athens, Greece. She is one of only six players in history to win a NCAA title, a WNBA championship, and an Olympic gold medal.
The fencing program has a gold medalist, as well. And like Riley, she helped lead Notre Dame to a national championship in 2005 -- the program's third in combined men's and women's play format and fourth overall for women.
Notre Dame Women's Fencing: A Championship Dynasty
Winning four NCAA championships in an eighteen year span--the 1987 women's title and the men's and women's combined titles in 1995, 2004, and 2005--women's fencing at Notre Dame has emerged into a dynasty. Women fencers have won individual titles on eight occasions -- women's foilists Molly Sullivan ('86, '88), Heidi Piper ('91), and Alicja Kryczalo ('02, '03,'04); epeeists Magda Krol ('97) and Kerry Walton ('02); and sabre Valerie Providenca ('04) and Mariel Zagunis ('06).
Just one year after finishing second nationally, under the leadership of second-year head coach Yves Auriol and former coach and fencing director Mike DeCicco, Notre Dame defeated top-seeded Temple 9-3 in the title match to claim its first women's national championship at the NCAA Championships hosted in the Joyce Center. Anne Barreda and Kristin Kralicek combined with Janice Hynes and third-place finisher Molly Sullivan, who was the defending national champion and two-time All-American, to give the University its first championship in women's athletics.
"There was just eleven years between a group that had never seen a fencing blade to Molly Sullivan and that great 1987 team," says DeCicco. "The championship in fencing that year was the greatest experience in fencing that I have ever had."
Seven years later, in the 1995 NCAA Championships at Brandeis University, Notre Dame won the combined men's and women's championship to finish the season with an undefeated record. Overcoming a 275-point lead by undefeated and top ranked Penn State heading into the final day of team competition, Notre Dame outscored the Nittany Lions 4,350 to 4,075 to win the title.
In his first season at the helm, head coach Janusz Bednarski guided the women's fencers to their third national championship in 2003. While a blizzard engulfed the host Air Force Academy forcing a condensed two-day competition, a perfect storm brewed inside the Cadet Field House as Notre Dame edged Penn State by three points (182-179). On the final day of competition, the women's bouts ultimately provided the margin of victory as the Irish totaled 38 wins in women's foil to take the championship. The win ended a decade of near-misses, as the prior eight squads finished second to Penn State on five occasions, and third on three others.
"The 2003 team was experienced," says Bednarski. "They were comprised of many seniors who were hungry to win and that was the main factor. It was only necessary to give them a spark during the year. The 2005 team was younger but well-prepared physically for team competition than the other teams in the field."
With a younger squad, Notre Dame women earned their fourth NCAA championship in `05. Six entrants in the women's portion of the championships notched a 44-10 record in the final rounds of bouts to lift Notre Dame past Ohio State 173-171. The squad became the first champion to win without the full complement of fencers, as 11 fencers combined for the record-setting 24 point comeback.
"I believe that women's fencing is strong and any success in our sport is helping the others," says Bendarski. "When one of our programs wins, it gives confidence to the other programs."
While the seven national championship teams have kept the work crew at Grace Hall busy, they have also carried the banner for women's sports at Notre Dame.
Additional light bulbs will be forthcoming.