Aug. 17, 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a five-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2009 Notre Dame fall sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the '08 NCAA runner-up Fighting Irish women's soccer team.
When it comes to winning a championship in any sport, at any level, the margin for error is so slim that even the smallest slip-up can be enough to derail title hopes.
In 2008, the Notre Dame women's soccer team saw both sides of that axiom. During the regular season, the Fighting Irish picked up a pair of overtime victories, as well as a one-goal win on the road at North Carolina. They also claimed the BIG EAST Championship in extra time, as Michele Weissenhofer's shot ticked off the tips off the Connecticut goalkeeper's gloves, allowed Melissa Henderson to slam home the rebound and give Notre Dame its 10th conference title.
In the NCAA Championship, the margins remained narrow, with the Fighting Irish winning three of their first five tournament games by 1-0 scores, including an overtime victory in the third round against Minnesota and a College Cup semifinal triumph over Stanford.
However, when it came to the national championship game against UNC, that window for error was trimmed to scant inches. It was that distance by which the Tar Heels tied the game at 1-1 on a second-half free kick, a shot that just found its way through a hole in the Notre Dame defensive wall and inside the left post (the only free kick score by a Fighting Irish opponent all season). It also was the length of a bootlace that was enough to deflect a Carolina cross and sending it spinning crazily on net and just under the crossbar with two minutes remaining in the game.
Just like that, Notre Dame's hopes for both a national championship and the first perfect 27-0-0 season in school history were dashed. It's a memory these Fighting Irish will never forget, a vision imprinted deep in their psyche as a reminder that the job is never finished until the final whistle sounds in the final game. It's what fuels Notre Dame to be one of the country's elite women's soccer powers year after year, and it's that drive that guarantees the NCAA championship trophy will soon find its way back to South Bend as the Fighting Irish seek their third national title.
"2008 was as close to a storybook season as you could have," 11th-year head coach Randy Waldrum said. "I'm still kind of amazed to look at the type of schedule we played and to go through that unbeaten and untied in this day in age is pretty tough to do. It's hard, because you're extremely proud of what the kids did over the year, and then at the end, to lose it in the championship game is still a tough one to take. I think all of us, the coaches and players, would agree that we let one get away. I still believe we were the best team in the country over the course of the season.
"At the same time, you go back and you see a lot of growth with some of those kids during the year," he added. "It's encouraging going into the next few years to see the kind of development that those young players showed in their first or second seasons in our program. There's a lot of positives we took from last year that should keep our players motivated and confident going into this season."
This year's squad could be just as deep as the 2008 team, with 19 monogram winners and seven starters back in uniform. In fact, 15 of those 19 returning veterans have starting experience, while 15 of those players scored at least one point last season, part of a record-setting group of 21 different point scorers in 2008. What's more, many of the key contributors are back from last year's rock-solid Notre Dame defense that registered a 0.44 goals-against average (GAA) that was fourth-best in school history and logged 18 shutouts, tying for second-most in the Fighting Irish record books.
Notre Dame also welcomes another of its traditionally strong incoming classes, with six freshmen entering the mix, all of whom experienced significant success at the high school, club and/or national team level. Additionally, the Fighting Irish will benefit from a challenging schedule that includes 11 home matches at the brand-new $5.7 million Alumni Stadium, which, when completed, will rank as arguably the nation's finest on-campus soccer-specific stadium.
Put all of these elements together and you have the makings of yet another championship contender at Notre Dame, with the Fighting Irish out to build upon four trips to the College Cup in the past five seasons and three title-game berths in that span.
"I think that while the 2005 and 2008 teams were probably the deepest we've had here, we're still going to be relatively deep this year," Waldrum said. "Looking on paper at who we think is going to contribute and earn significant playing time, we're still going to be around 20 players deep, including our goalkeepers. Of course, depth doesn't always ensure a national championship, but it will definitely be a positive as we look ahead to the season.
"The difference with this year's team may be the perception outside our program that we won't have any stars because of the loss of some of the big names like Kerri Hanks, Brittany Bock and Carrie Dew," he continued. "Within our team, and those that know about our team, they know we have a lot of stars. A few in the soccer community may not realize that right now because we don't have many of the household names we've had in past years, but by the end of the season, these current players will have that same kind of name recognition. I'm excited about this team and our expectations for them are every bit as high as they were last year."
Henderson enters her sophomore season following one of the top rookie campaigns in school history. The reigning BIG EAST Rookie of the Year and a first-team Freshman All-America pick by Soccer America, the Garland, Texas, native rode shotgun with Hanks atop the BIG EAST statistical charts, ranking second in the conference in most offensive categories, including goals (17), goals per game (0.63), points (36) and points per game (1.33). She also stamped her place in Notre Dame lore with the "golden goal" in the BIG EAST Championship game against Connecticut, a score that led her to become just the second freshman in conference history to be voted the most outstanding player of the BIG EAST tournament.
A skillful playmaker with speed to burn, Henderson will be counted upon to take on a greater offensive load this season, both in terms of point production and minutes played. Because of the extraordinary depth on last year's club, she started 20 times but averaged 53.6 minutes per game, and had she played a full 90 minutes on a nightly basis, Henderson would not only have threatened the school record for goals by a freshman (Hanks' 28 in 2005), but also challenged for the '08 NCAA freshman goalscoring title (she still ranked 40th in the nation in goals per game).
"Melissa had such a very good freshman year, even with some nagging injuries that she had to play through," Waldrum noted. "I'm glad we were able to determine what those injuries were and got them taken care of during the offseason. With that behind her, I'm really looking for another good year with her, but being someone who can carry the load a bit more now that she's not deferring as much to the veterans like Hanks and Bock. To me, she's an All-American. The sky's the limit on what she can achieve here because she's such a dangerous person out there."
Senior Courtney Rosen makes the move up to the Fighting Irish attack line after spending the past three seasons in the midfield. The Brecksville, Ohio, product enjoyed a breakout season in 2008, scoring three goals and adding five assists while starting all but one game on the way to second-team all-BIG EAST and first-team all-Great Lakes Region honors. She also assisted on Hanks' goal 16 seconds into the national championship game against North Carolina, setting a record for the quickest goal to start an NCAA College Cup final.
Thanks to a highly-productive off-season regimen the past two summers, Rosen has evolved into one of the premier attacking players in the BIG EAST, if not the country. She expertly blends a powerful shot and superb ball control with her back to goal, with an intrinsic knowledge of the game from all angles. It's this insight that has given the Notre Dame coaching staff every confidence that Rosen will make a seamless transition up front this fall.
"Courtney might be our most underrated or underappreciated player, both for what she does on the field and what she brings in the locker room as a leader," Waldrum observed. "She doesn't always make the All-America teams, and yet I've always thought she was every bit as good and every bit as important to our team as Hanks, Bock and the others. I'm really hoping this is the year that people start to recognize her for what she's given us over her four years. She's going to be a key for us this year, and the game will revolve a lot around her, whether she's up front or if we put her back in the midfield."
Rounding out the Fighting Irish forward trio will be sophomore Courtney Barg, who blossomed during the latter half of the 2008 season, finishing with three goals and three assists in 27 games (17 starts). The Plano, Texas, resident also played a pivotal role in Notre Dame's NCAA Championship run, starting all six games and potting the only goal in the 15th minute of the College Cup semifinal victory over Stanford (converting an assist from Henderson, her classmate and fellow Texan).
"Courtney is so composed with the ball, especially in the attacking third when everything is chaotic around her," Waldrum said. "In a lot of ways, she plays up front the way (Carrie) Dew played in the back for us the past four years. She also sees those seams in the defense and has the ability to play her teammates into space better than just about anyone we have. She's really embraced the full-time move up front and we're expecting some exciting things from her this year."
Not to be overlooked, Weissenhofer comes into her final year with the Fighting Irish as a vital offensive cog. The native of Naperville, Ill., ranks third among returning players in scoring, having chalked up four goals and seven assists last season, capped off by a goal and three assists in the postseason, along with a spot on the BIG EAST Championship all-tournament team. The senior frontliner also is on the verge of becoming the 13th player in program history with at least 30 goals and 30 assists in her career (currently 30G-27A).
Weissenhofer brings veteran savvy to the Notre Dame lineup and a big-game mentality (she ranks 10th in school history with 31 career postseason points on 12 goals and seven assists), as well as a physical presence inside the penalty area. Add in her always-dangerous flip throw-in, which has been responsible for no fewer than seven direct assists and numerous other plays that led directly to scores (including two own-goals in the BIG EAST quarterfinals against Cincinnati) and it's easy to see what makes Weissenhofer such a valuable part of this year's squad.
"Michele could be a real x-factor for us," Waldrum commented. "If she comes into the fall mentally and physically prepared, she has the ability to be a threat with the way she can pull goals seemingly out of nowhere. With Michele, it's always a confidence thing. If she can get going early, it will be a boost to her confidence and she could really add a dimension that would allow us to move someone else around in the lineup."
It has become customary in recent seasons for Notre Dame to mix in young talent along the front line and 2009 would look to be no exception. Canadian import Tereza Stastny has been a mainstay in her country's national team pool throughout her high school years and was selected for the '08 Canadian U-17 World Cup Team, although she was not able to make the trip to New Zealand with the Maple Leafs due to injury.
A quick and crafty forward, Stastny also brings significant experience at the club level, winning the '08 Canadian national championship with the Calgary Foothills Colts and earning a pair of medals during a five-year run with Calgary Southwest United (her teams won more than 77 percent of their games). She may be the first Alberta native to suit up for Notre Dame, but she is poised to continue in the tradition of great Canadians who have played for the Fighting Irish, including 2004 national player of the year Katie Thorlakson (British Columbia) and All-America selections Candace Chapman and Melissa Tancredi (Ontario).
"Tereza is someone we're expecting a lot out of," Waldrum said. "She physically reminds me of players like Vanessa Pruzinsky and Kim Lorenzen in terms of her athleticism. And yet, she's got all the skill sets to go with it. She could be one of our future stars here at Notre Dame. I've got real high expectations for her."
Although small in stature, 5-foot-3 freshman Leah Fisher could pack a powerful punch for Notre Dame this season. Hailing from Palm Harbor, Fla., Fisher was a two-time all-state selection at East Lake High School, while enjoying additional success at the club level with Clearwater SC and with the Region III ODP squad in 2008. During her final two years with Clearwater SC, the lightning-fast Fisher (who originally played on the back line) rang up 33 goals and 14 assists, even in spite of missing one-third of the '07 season with an injury.
"One of the things we liked about Leah when we recruited her was her athleticism," Waldrum stated. "She'll be one of the fastest players we have on the team. She won't be one of those players with the flair on the ball, but what she's got is a good finishing ability and she's technically strong enough to get by people. The thing that excites me is that she's the kind of player who will benefit from having teammates around her that can get her the ball in a position to make something happen."
Junior Rose Augustin is coming off a strong second season that saw her tie for third on the team with six goals and wind up sixth with 14 points. The Silver Lake, Ohio, product also was among the team leaders with 58 shots and three game-winning goals, including the decisive scores in the first two NCAA Championship victories for the Fighting Irish last season (5-2 vs. Toledo and 1-0 vs. Michigan State).
Blessed with a keen playmaking sense and a powerful right foot that makes her a danger on set pieces, Augustin started 20 times last season, her first as a full-time midfielder after making the transition from the front line. She's expected to provide stability and veteran leadership in the midfield this season while serving as some of the key connective tissue in the Notre Dame transition game.
"Rose has that calming presence that adds so much to our offense," Waldrum said. "She has the ability to make things happen out of the midfield, whether it be with her vision in the run of play, or off dead-ball situations with her strong leg that creates so much havoc for the other team."
Fowlkes gained immeasurable experience with Team USA as a starter on the American backline, but her versatility as either a defensive midfielder or central back is what makes her a critical piece of the Fighting Irish puzzle this season. Like Augustin, she possesses a strong and accurate shot, and has the ability to distribute pinpoint serves from distance, as evidenced by the two assists (and a third uncredited assist) she registered in the spring 2009 finale against Illinois at Chicago's famed Soldier Field.
A dynamic and physical force both on the ground and in the air, Fowlkes is one of Notre Dame's better on-ball defenders (as evidenced by her performance in the regular-season win at North Carolina last year), a quality that will no doubt serve her and the Fighting Irish well this season.
Although she sometimes toils in anonymity at defensive midfielder, senior Amanda Clark is one of the more indispensible players on the Notre Dame roster. She appeared in 22 games last season, starting four times, and picked up a goal and assist. However, it's the steady and consistent presence she provides in the defensive third that makes her so valuable. With no less than 43 starts (10 in the postseason) during her first three seasons under the Golden Dome, the Naperville, Ill., native is solid in Notre Dame's possession game and should give Waldrum added flexibility in his playing rotations this fall.
"Lauren and A.C. bring something completely different to the table," Waldrum observed. "They both have a physical presence, while Lauren brings calmness with the ball along with effectiveness in the air. A.C. is a bit more disruptive defensively than Lauren. There may be those games that we need that destroyer in there, and that's where A.C. is a good fit. Other times, you'll need someone to scheme and distribute things, and that's where Lauren comes into play. So it's nice to have two different kinds of players at that holding midfield spot."
In an effort to add athleticism and quickness to the midfield, the Fighting Irish shifted a pair of juniors back from the front line. Taylor Knaack made significant in-roads in her first full season after missing her rookie year while recovering from a knee injury. Hailing from Arlington, Texas, Knaack played in all 27 games for Notre Dame, mainly as a high-octane reserve (although she did start four times), and tallied five goals and two assists. Her biggest impact came in the postseason, when she scored seven of her 12 points, including the clinching goals in the BIG EAST semifinal against Marquette (2-0) and the NCAA Championship quarterfinal against Florida State (2-0).
"Taylor really seemed to adapt well to playing in the midfield when we moved her there in the spring," Waldrum said. "She gives us a different look as that player who can get a ball, run it through the midfield quickly and go at people with speed."
Perhaps no player on the Notre Dame roster showed greater improvement from 2007 to 2008 than Erica Iantorno. The Hinsdale, Ill., product turned into a super-sub for the Fighting Irish last season, finishing with five goals (third among returnees) and seven assists (tops among those coming back) despite starting only once in her 26 game appearances. A heady player with good finishing skills, Iantorno notched points in six of her team's first nine games last year, including a two-assist day against Duke and a career-high three-point night in the season opener against Michigan.
"As much as anything else, moving Erica to the midfield is an effort to see where we can get the most minutes out of her," Waldrum noted. "That doesn't mean she won't slide back up front at times, because she did a really good job coming off the bench for us in that role last year. But if the other players up front pan out like we expect they will, we start to look at minutes there, and the midfield would be a place that we think we can get her some time. She's good enough with the ball technically that she can help with the flow of the game, and that's what we saw out of her in the spring."
Freshman Lindsay Brown could add another dimension to the Fighting Irish midfield in the attacking third. The Ladera Ranch, Calif., resident collected six goals and nine assists as a senior at Mater Dei High School while leading the squad to a third consecutive southern California sectional quarterfinal berth. What's more, she has benefitted from playing with one of the country's top club programs in Slammers FC, which won three southern California age-group titles during Brown's tenure. She also competed for three seasons with the Region IV ODP Invitational team, including the '08 squad that placed fourth at nationals.
As is the case with the two other lines, the Fighting Irish will have to adjust to the departure of a veteran presence in the defensive third as Dew, a '08 first-team All-America center back, was one of four Notre Dame players selected in the top 21 picks of the inaugural Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) draft. However, Dew expertly mentored several younger players throughout her career, all of who now have the opportunity to carry on that knowledge and add their own unique contributions to the program's rock-solid defensive tradition.
A native of Plano, Texas, Schuveiller brings numerous intangibles to the table, including a calm and focused demeanor even in the toughest pressure situations and an uncanny sense of defensive positioning and angles. It was these traits that led U.S. Soccer to call her into the U-23 National Team training camp in June and make her an important part of that program's future.
"It couldn't have been a better compliment for her than to be picked for that U-23 team this summer because it was so well-deserved," Waldrum said. "What I like most about her is she's humble, focused, driven and not caught up in any outside distractions. When she's on the field, she's out there to win and nothing else. Notre Dame is first and foremost in her mind, she bleeds the colors and the program means everything to her. She also has some real leadership potential on this team, especially at that center back position."
Senior Haley Ford has experience in some of the highest-profile games for the Fighting Irish during her first three seasons. She has made 21 starts in her career, including three stints in the starting 11 last year that culminated with a nod to open the national championship game against North Carolina. The Midland, Texas, resident also picked up her first career goal and an assist at Cincinnati last year.
Although she has been forced to dodge a handful of injuries during her time at Notre Dame, when healthy, Ford is among the strongest on-ball defenders the Fighting Irish can run out on a nightly basis. She also is effective in the air and adopts an aggressive defensive posture that belies her lanky frame.
"Haley is going to be the key to a lot of these position moves we've made," Waldrum noted. "She's quite a good player. I thought she was our best defender in the '06 national championship game against Carolina, but since then, she's had a hard time staying healthy."
The outside backs play a pivotal role in Notre Dame's transition game and junior Julie Scheidler has emerged as a capable contributor on the right side for the Fighting Irish. The Indianapolis native owns 45 starts in 53 games during her first two seasons, including 24 starting assignments and 1,898 minutes last year. Scheidler also has been a constant for Notre Dame in the postseason, starting all 17 Fighting Irish tournament games since she arrived on the scene.
In 2008, Scheidler continued her growth in the offensive third, tallying a career-high five assists, with assists in back-to-back games on two separate occasions. With a strong service game from the flank, and steady development in her abilities, Scheidler will be a valuable asset on the outside for Notre Dame this fall.
"Right from the start of practice last year, it was pretty apparent we needed to have Julie out there on the field," Waldrum commented. "She faced the prospect of going up against some talented freshmen for that right back spot and she came in ready to compete which she did very well."
Sophomore Molly Campbell may be the most intriguing addition to the Fighting Irish retaining line this season. After spending much of her freshman campaign as a midfielder and forward, Campbell was shifted to left back during the spring 2009 season and showed impressive development in a short span of time. She already has 20 games' worth of experience at the college level and potted her first career goal early in a mid-September victory over SMU.
The Mission Hills, Kan., product, offers a solid mix of offensive playmaking skills and an excellent possession game. She also displays patience and a calm demeanor, while continuing to make rapid adjustments to life at the defensive end of the field.
"Of all the players, I would say she had the best spring and was our most improved player," Waldrum stated. "She probably showed even more of an aptitude to attack than Julie (Scheidler), who's been playing that position for the past couple of years. There's still some work to do with Molly, but I'm hopeful that we don't skip a beat with her in there."
Fowlkes, junior Stephanie Sohn, sophomore Ellen Jantsch and freshman Jazmin Hall could also see time on the Notre Dame back line this season. Sohn is a disciplined outside back who has played in 25 games through her first two seasons. Jantsch appeared in 12 games last year, mainly as a holding midfielder, while scoring her first college goal in her debut game against Michigan, then adding an assist in the regular-season finale against Seton Hall.
"This is going to be a big year for Steph because she's been in our program for a couple of years and we'd like to see her take that next big step," Waldrum noted. "Ellen is another player we're looking to find minutes for, and we'll see if that turns out to be at the center back spot or maybe at the holding mid, depending on how our personnel develops."
Meanwhile, Hall is the latest in a long line of players to join the Fighting Irish from the vaunted Dallas Texans club program. An quick and athletic outside back, she has big-game experience with the Texans (the 2008 national champions and three-time national semifinalists during Hall's tenure), as well as her USYS Region III squad (2005-07) and a stint in the U.S. U-15 National Team pool in 2006.
"Jazmin is not that big (5-foot-3), so she's going to have to be more physical than her size typically allows her to do," Waldrum said. "If she can adapt to that aspect of the college game, she has the potential to be a really good player for us."
Standing 5-foot-10, Lysander is an imposing presence in the penalty box, while she offers good quickness and agility for a player of her size. She also showed solid growth as a defensive leader for Notre Dame, commanding the area well as the season progressed and keeping opposing threats to a minimum.
"Kelsey showed some good improvement last season," Waldrum noted. "She's another of those players that, if she can stay healthy, can be a positive and stabilizing force for us. She's going to have her hands full with the competition between all three of our keepers, but I think she's ready to accept and embrace that challenge."
Junior Nikki Weiss served as Lysander's understudy last season, appearing in nine games (210 minutes) and allowing just one goal while making four saves. She also closed out eight of the team's 18 shutouts in 2008. Through her first two years, the Redding, Conn., product has a 1.12 career GAA in 16 games with a 1-2-1 record and a portion of 12 shutouts.
Like Lysander, Weiss brings impressive height to the goalkeeping position as the team's tallest player at 5-foot-11. She also has a strong leg and tremendous potential for growth, making her a particularly viable alternative to Lysander between the pipes.
"It's time for Nikki to step up," Waldrum said. "She has all the potential in the world, and `potential' is a dangerous word. She's been blessed with the size and other attributes that most keepers would love to have, but it's all about what you do with it."
Depth in goal is always critical and freshman Maddie Fox could provide that support in spades. The San Jose native pitched 11 shutouts with a 0.53 GAA during her career at Leigh High School, while also earning her stripes as a four-year member of the ODP Region IV squad (as a teammate of fellow Fighting Irish rookie Lindsay Brown). Fox spent added time in the U.S. U-16 National Team player pool in 2006, followed by a year with the ODP National Development Camp, giving her extensive experience in high-profile situations.
Though a bit shorter than the other Notre Dame netminders on this year's roster, the 5-foot-8 Fox more than makes up that difference in the way she takes charge of the defensive third. Displaying good agility and sound fundamentals, she is in position to contend for significant playing time in the Fighting Irish nets this season.
"Maddie is someone completely different in that she doesn't fit the mold of our last few goalkeepers in terms of their size," Waldrum commented. "But I think she's one of those players who's going to come in here right away and compete to play. She's going to make it very difficult on the other two, but that's good because we want that kind of challenge and competitiveness from our keepers."
The Fighting Irish will open the 2009 regular season Friday at 7:30 p.m. (ET) against Wisconsin at Alumni Field (the former home of Notre Dame soccer, which will host the team's first two regular-season matches while construction is completed on the new Alumni Stadium). For all games at Alumni Field, the public is asked to park in the University's library parking lot (located east of the Hesburgh Library and northwest of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex) and enter the soccer field via Courtney Lane (across from the Eck Tennis Pavilion). Tickets are available at the Notre Dame athletics ticket office (574-631-7356), on-line through the Fighting Irish athletics ticket web page (www.und.com/tickets), or at the gate on game night.