Feb. 13, 2017
By Joanne Norell
NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- The University of Notre Dame women's soccer program celebrated the 2016 season Saturday, commemorating a year of firsts and bests with dinner and an award show at the Warren Golf Course.
The Irish coaching staff handed out their usual team awards and extended the program to bestow honors for the year's best individual moments. The Irish also honored their seven departing seniors with heartfelt words from both coaches and their underclassmen teammates.
The Irish awarded two student-athletes the distinction of Most Valuable Player. Senior goalkeeper Kaela Little and senior forward Kaleigh Olmsted both earned the honor after career-best seasons. Freshman Jennifer Westendorf earned Notre Dame's Freshman of the Year distinction, while Little also took home the team's third annual Elizabeth Tucker Award.
Little, who was an All-ACC Third Team and All-ACC Academic Team selection, capped her career with her best season to date, earning career highs in goals against average (0.41), saves (91), save percentage (.910) and solo shutouts (13). She ranked first in the conference in save percentage and shutouts, second in goals against average and fourth in saves. She finished her career ranked first in program history in solo shutouts (38) and save percentage (.838), third in minutes (7,249:45) and goalkeeper starts (78) and fourth in goals against average (0.66).
Olmsted capped her solid Notre Dame career with a four-goal, five-assist senior campaign and was named to the All-ACC First Team, ACC All-Tournament Team and All-ACC Academic Team. Her versatility on the field extended beyond the stat sheet, with the capacity to float between forward and midfield and frustrate opponents with her crafty one-on-one abilities.
Westendorf made an immediate impact for the Irish as a freshman, leading the team in scoring with six goals and an assist for 13 points. She was an All-ACC Second Team and All-ACC Academic Team pick, as well as an All-Freshman Team honoree, and earned ACC Co-Offensive Player of the Week honors on October 18 after lifting the Irish to their first win over North Carolina on their home field.
Little was named the third recipient of the Elizabeth Tucker Award, commemorating Notre Dame's first NCAA Woman of the Year and reflecting the five pillars upon which the University of Notre Dame athletics department is built: excellence, education, faith, community and tradition. The award is given to the student-athlete whom the coaching staff believes best demonstrates those qualities across the board. Head coach Theresa Romagnolo cited Little's accomplishments as a student, team mentor and volunteer at Perley Elementary School as just some of Little's qualifications for the award.
For the first time, the Irish coaching staff added six team awards to the program: Goal of the Year, Assist of the Year, Save of the Year, Tackle of the Year, Most Improved Player and Most Resilient.
Goal of the Year was another shared honor, ultimately awarded to Westendorf for her game-winning free kick against North Carolina, and to Olmsted for her brilliant goal against Miami on Senior Night.
Junior defender Ginny McGowan earned Tackle of the Year honors for her clearing of a threat during that Miami game, while Little -- who represented all of the nominees for Save of the Year -- ultimately took home the hardware for a diving effort against Virginia Tech.
Sophomore defender Rachel Heard was named the team's Most Improved Player after stepping into the center back position and becoming one of the nation's most formidable defenders. Sophomore Shannon Hendricks copped Most Resilient honors for her versatility, tenacity and willingness to do anything asked of her, according to Romagnolo.
Romagnolo praised the 2016 squad -- the first to win an Atlantic Coast Conference championship by claiming the regular-season crown -- for its selflessness, focus, versatility and toughness. It was a group that entered the season with plenty of question marks with an inexperienced core, but proved itself as one of the best units in the country, especially defensively.
The Irish allowed nine goals all season, including one at home, and recorded 15 shutouts in 21 games. Picked to finish sixth in the conference, Notre Dame earned the No. 1 seed in the ACC Championship and advanced to the tournament semifinal. The Irish picked up a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Championship and made their 24th straight appearance in the national tournament.
The event closed with the team recognizing its graduating seniors: Emily Geyer, Mariel Adams, Kiley Adams, Cindy Pineda, Rilka Noel, Olmsted and Little. (Yu will return with a fifth year of eligibility in 2017.)
Romagnolo extolled the senior class for its leadership, starting last January with the earliest preparations for 2016. It was a class that wanted each member of the team to have a voice, that stressed hard work and selflessness and wanted hard work to account for more than talent.
"I couldn't ask for anything more from this group," Romagnolo said.
-- ND --
Joanne Norell, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2014 and coordinates communications efforts for the Notre Dame women's soccer, men's tennis, women's tennis and fencing programs. Norell is a 2011 graduate of Purdue University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in mass communication, and earned her master's degree in sports industry management from Georgetown University in 2013.