Aug. 20, 2008
With the 2008 presidential election campaign heating up, one of the key issues on both candidates' agenda is energy. Each side believes they have the key to solving the country's ongoing desire for alternative energy. However, with apologies to Sens. Obama and McCain, one of the best energy plans in the country may be found on the Notre Dame campus in the form of the Irish women's soccer team.
When it comes to high-octane offense, few programs in the country can match Notre Dame, which employs a unique and attractive attacking style that has yielded an average of better than 2.5 goals per game in seven of first nine seasons of the Randy Waldrum era (including each of the past five years). The Irish also have proven to be one of the country's most unselfish squads on offense, with no fewer than 12 players scoring at least one goal and at least 16 players logging at least one assist in every season since 2002.
Yet, when it comes to alternative energy, Notre Dame gets a charge out of its defense like very few other schools. The Irish have posted a goals-against average of less than 1.00 seven times in the Waldrum era, and in four of the past five years, they have held opponents to 15 goals or fewer for the entire season. Even with last year's uncharacteristic 1.05 GAA, it was defensive muscle that played a pivotal role in Notre Dame's 17-game unbeaten streak down the stretch, as the Irish allowed only 10 goals (0.58 GAA) and shut out nine opponents, while picking up wins over three ranked foes (#4 North Carolina, #13 Connecticut and #25 Louisville).
Some have suggested that coal may be the method to use in boosting the country's energy reserves. However, Notre Dame shouldn't have to dig deep into a mountainside to find success this season, but rather by mining the talent on its own roster. The Irish return 19 monogram winners, including nine starters, from last year's squad that compiled a 19-5-2 record and made the team's ninth NCAA College Cup semifinals appearance in the past 14 seasons. Notre Dame also should harness some wind energy in the form of a highly regarded nine-player freshman class that comes blowing into town full of promise and potential.
"This is going to be probably one of the deepest teams we've ever had," Waldrum said. "We're not that old of a team with what we have returning, and of the nine kids coming in as freshmen, there are probably five that will be in contention to start right away, which is pretty unheard of for an incoming class. So the competition for playing time this year will be fierce."
So the Irish head into the 2008 season on a campaign of their own with one aim in mind. Notre Dame's party platform is a hybrid, built on a combination of reliable fuels and fresh possibilities, and its goal is to create the ultimate clean and efficient energy source -- championship gold shaped as the program's third NCAA title.
Here's a position-by-position look at the 2008 Irish:
Although Notre Dame will have a great deal of power at all position on the field, the Irish front line is expected to be among the strongest of any crew in the nation. Notre Dame has 83.3 percent (55 of 66) of its goal scoring back from last season, and close to half (27) of that returning offensive punch comes from the forwards.
Entering her final season, senior Kerri Hanks (Allen, Texas) already has blazed trails seldom seen in the annals of NCAA Division I women's soccer, let alone at Notre Dame. A slick 5-foot-6 forward who thrives in the Irish attacking style, Hanks has 64 goals and 58 assists in her brilliant career, putting her on the verge of becoming just the third D-I player ever to amass 70 goals and 70 assists, joining former Notre Dame great Jenny Streiffer (70G-71A from 1996-99) and North Carolina legend Mia Hamm.
A three-time All-American (and two-time first-team selection), Hanks holds more than 60 records at Notre Dame, and is poised to move into the top 10 on the NCAA career assists chart, as well as the top 25 on the NCAA all-time points list (currently at 186). She has led the country in assists each of the past two seasons, dishing out 21 helpers last year to go along with 14 goals (second on the team).
"Kerri just finds ways to score goals," Waldrum said. "Even when you think she's out of the game, it just takes that one split-second and she'll break your back. A lot of people may not realize that her best attribute is what she does when she doesn't have the ball. She's also just so competitive and brings that fire every day."
Hanks will be ably complemented up front by junior Michele Weissenhofer (Naperville, Ill.), whose physical style and knack for scoring in big situations makes her a threat every time she touches the ball. Weissenhofer battled through a nagging ankle injury last season to finish third on the team in goals (8) and points (19) while appearing in 24 games and starting 19 times. In her career, she has piled up 26 goals and 20 assists and she already owns the school record with six game-winning goals in the NCAA Championship, including winning scores in last year's tournament against Illinois (second round) and #4 North Carolina (third round; 2nd of the game).
The 2006 Soccer America national freshman of the year, Weissenhofer also provides the Irish with an added weapon in the offensive third, thanks to her unique flip throw-in that has directly led to no less than a dozen goals in her first two seasons at Notre Dame. Now as an upperclassman, Weissenhofer will be expected to add leadership to her growing list of skills.
"Michele had a bit of a down year last year, but a lot of that was due to the ankle injury," Waldrum noted. "She started to come on in the NCAAs last year, and I think you'll see her come back to the same form she showed as a freshman. She just has that physical strength that's difficult for opponents to handle, and she's a weapon on offense, between her ability to strike the ball with either foot and her flip throws."
Sophomore Rose Augustin (Silver Lake, Ohio) showed tremendous potential as a rookie last season, offering a solid spark off the bench while appearing in all 26 games. She wound up tied for fourth on the team in goals (5) and was one of eight players to chalk up double-digit points a year ago (11 pts, 5G-1A). A crafty playmaker with a nose for the goal, Augustin also could see some action in the midfield, having played on the outside during the spring of 2008.
"I thought Rose looked very solid in the midfield during the spring and we're going to take a look to see what position is going to work best for her to get the most playing time," Waldrum observed. "She's so composed with the ball and a real good finisher. With a little bit of work, she may also be able to help us on some set pieces because she has the ability to bend some balls, which not a lot of female players can do really well.
Sophomore Taylor Knaack (Arlington, Texas) missed all of last season while recovering from a torn ACL suffered in May 2007. However, she showed remarkable resilience during her rehabilitation and was able to quickly work her way back into playing form in the spring. Now back at 100 percent, Knaack will lend speed and creativity to an already-potent Irish offense during the coming season.
"Taylor gives us a completely different look than some of the other returning players with her quickness and ability to be all over the field," Waldrum commented. "People may have forgotten about her a little bit because she was injured last year, but I think she's going to come in and compete for some playing time this year."
One of the most decorated incoming players in program history, freshman Melissa Henderson (Garland, Texas) is the consummate goalscorer, having rolled up 66 goals and 45 assists in only 47 high school games (she did not play as a senior to focus on commitments with her club program and U.S. Under-20 National Team, which added her to its playing pool in 2007. She also made history in '07 by becoming the first junior women's soccer player ever chosen as the Gatorade National Player of the Year, adding to an overflowing trophy case that includes a pair of NSCAA youth All-America and Parade All-America citations.
A speedy and skilled technical player, Henderson also displays a humble attitude and an insatiable work ethic that will serve her well at the college level. She can switch the point of attack in an instant and should be able to seamlessly blend with the rest of the Notre Dame front line to give the Irish one of the nation's top attacking units.
"Melissa is going to remind a lot of our fans of (former Irish All-American) Amy Warner," Waldrum said. "Her style will really play off the others up front in that she offers some added skills that some of the others don't. She's going to come in, have an impact and move some people around, and we're looking forward to seeing how she fits in with the returning players."
As most soccer observers will attest, the key to any good team lies in its midfield. For Notre Dame, the offensive engine continues to be senior midfielder/forward and co-captain Brittany Bock. A 2007 NSCAA first-team All-American and BIG EAST Conference Co-Offensive Player of the Year, the Naperville, Ill., played primarily up front the past two seasons, leading the Irish last season in goals (16) and finishing second in points (36), while also squeezing off 81 shots, including a team-high 44 on goal.
One of 17 players in school history with 100 career points (40G-20A), Bock is Notre Dame's top all-around player with a wide array of skills that include a deadly long-range shot, precision dribbling and passing abilities, a rugged and relentless style at both ends, and dominating talent in the air, having produced numerous header goals during her time with the Irish. She also is an incredibly cerebral player, as evidenced by her third-team Academic All-America selection last year (the 51st Notre Dame student-athlete ever to earn All-America honors on the field and in the classroom in the same season).
"Brittany does such a fantastic job up front, especially with her back to the goal, and we haven't had that type of player in program since Meotis Erikson in 2000," Waldrum pointed out. "She'll be the first to tell you she's a midfielder, but with the kind of success she's had up front the past two years, she's more receptive to the idea of being up there. We're pretty deep in both (the forward and midfield) areas, so where we play Brittany will depend a lot on what kind of personnel is out there at a given time."
"Courtney was a bit overlooked during her first two years just because she missed some time with injuries," Waldrum noted. "But she really came on the spring, and she's going to continue to impress people in the fall with how much she's grown as a player."
Another of Notre Dame's "energy players" in the midfield is senior Rebecca Mendoza. A native of Garland, Texas, Mendoza split time between the starting lineup and a reserve role last season, playing in all 26 games (15 starts) and finishing with three goals and an assist. The versatile midfielder also has worked to sharpen her defensive skills and physicality, adding to a strong presence on the ball, where she is extremely valuable in Notre Dame's possession game.
"Rebecca has just gotten better and better every single year," Waldrum said. "She's going to be right in the thick of things for us in the midfield once again with her technical skills, and she works well in balance with some of our other players."
As is the case with many of the Irish players, sophomore Lauren Fowlkes (Lee's Summit, Mo.) saw time both in the midfield and on defense last season. She led the team in minutes played (2,324) and started all 26 games for Notre Dame, tallying two goals and an assist. A true team player and budding leader, Fowlkes moved out of her natural midfield position early in the season when injuries left the Irish thin on defense, and she wound up starting the final 20 contests at center back and helping spark Notre Dame to a 17-game unbeaten string.
At 5-foot-10, Fowlkes is a strong weapon in the air at both ends of the field. She's also a talented playmaker and showed her offensive flash during the spring of 2008, when she scored the game-winning goal in an exhibition against the Mexican National Team, heading home a free kick from Hanks in the 72nd minute. Fowlkes should gain added benefit from an extensive summer stint with the U.S. Under-20 National Team, having helped the Americans to a runner-up finish at the CONCACAF U-20 Championships and earn a berth in the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Chile later this year.
"Lauren is that tough physical presence on defense and she's also really good in the air," Waldrum said. "We're looking to move her back to the midfield this year and she's going to be among the ones playing a important role there during the course of the season."
Junior Amanda Clark (Naperville, Ill.) has quietly provided rock-solid play in the defensive midfield for Notre Dame. Clark played in all 26 games last season, starting 25 of them and settling nicely into her current role. She brings an overflowing level of toughness and intensity to the midfield and has risen to the challenge when drawing difficult marking assignments, displaying a fearless nature and working well in the shadows.
"I'm so pleased with the way Amanda plays because she's just so tenacious," Waldrum observed. "She's the one who does the dirty work for us. Her presence in the midfield is critical because of what she does in terms of locking down opponents and gaining possession for our attack."
Two Irish freshmen who could make an impact in the midfield this season are Courtney Barg (Plano, Texas) and Molly Campbell (Mission Hills, Kan.). Barg was a four-time NSCAA youth All-American and two-time Parade All-American and has been a regular in the U.S Youth National Team program in recent years, most recently with the 2006 U-17 squad. With solid all-around skills and versatility in either the midfield or up front, Barg has the ability to blend playmaking flair with intelligence and savvy on the ball.
"Based on the kind of depth we have up front, we'll probably see her more in the midfield this year," Waldrum commented. "She's not a super athletic person, but she'll catch you eye because she's just so clever and composed. I believe she'll be one of our most technically-sound players this season."
Campbell was a two-time NSCAA youth All-American, boasting sharp technical abilities and athleticism that will make her a threat in all areas of the field. While Barg is likely to play more in the central midfield, it's expected Campbell could see time on the outside, with both players competing early for playing time.
"Molly has really grown in the past couple of years and has some good size for us as an attacking midfielder," Waldrum added. "She's good on the ball, smart and a non-stop worker, and she'll make a push to get some time this year as well."
Injuries have played a significant role in the makeup of Notre Dame's back line in recent years. However, when healthy, the Irish defense has been on par with the best in the land. For convincing evidence of that fact, one need look no further than the 17-game unbeaten streak Notre Dame put together late last season, and the vise-like grip the Irish placed on their opponents (0.58 GAA, 9 ShO, 2.6 SOG per game allowed).
Her presence also lends stability to Notre Dame's defense and allows several players to return to their natural positions. A composed and fearless player, especially in the air, Dew is an exceptional student of the game and is rarely caught out of position. She also can provide a boost to the Irish attack, with 18 career points (7G-4A), including two goals and three assists last season. In fact, she scored in the 15th minute of the '07 NCAA College Cup semifinal against Florida State to fuel the first of two Notre Dame comebacks in that contest.
"Carrie is one of the best backs in the country, and by this past spring, she was back to that level after her ACL injury," Waldrum said. "She's so smart and understands the game so well. The whole back line is going to revolve around her, because she brings this level of calmness that rubs off on the others."
Senior left back Elise Weber (Elk Grove, Ill.) is another of the pillars of the Irish defense. Weber had played primarily in the midfield before coming to Notre Dame as a transfer from Wisconsin prior to last season. Yet, she blossomed into a top-flight stopper on the outside, starting all 26 games. She also was a perfect addition to the Irish offense, regularly venturing into the attacking third and ranking second on the team with seven assists (tied for fourth with 13 points).
A second-team all-Great Lakes Region and third-team all-BIG EAST selection last year, Weber was one of only 12 defenders on the '07 midseason Hermann Trophy ballot (national player of the year). She also spent time in camp with the U.S. Under-23 National Team during the summer of 2008 and remains in that team's player pool.
"By the end of last year, I thought Elise was the best left back in the country," Waldrum said. "Going into this year, she's going to be right at the top of the list again, especially offensively, because she gets forward so well. Having her and Carrie Dew on the back line as seniors really adds to your experience level."
Junior defender Haley Ford (Midland, Texas) was one of the primary victims of the injury bug last season, playing in only five games (starting four) before a hamstring malady sidelined her for the rest of the year. A tall (5-foot-9) and lanky presence, Ford should be completely healed for 2008, allowing her to rebuild a formidable central back combination with Dew. Her biggest assets remain her poise and control in pressure situations, and she also is strong on the ball and in the air.
"Haley had a good freshman year and just couldn't get through injuries last season," Waldrum pointed out. "We would really like to see her get stronger so she can stay healthy. She plays so hard, and reads the game so well, and if we can keep her injury-free, she can get back to that level she reached as a freshman and make some important contributions for us."
Sophomore right back Julie Scheidler (Indianapolis, Ind.) was arguably one of the more important players in the Notre Dame lineup last season. As a rookie, she played in all 26 games and became a regular in the Irish starting XI at the beginning of the team's 17-game unbeaten string, proving to be a quick study. She was particularly dependable, combining athleticism and strong field vision to evolve as a mainstay on the Irish back line. Like Weber, she also adapted well to Notre Dame's system with its attacking from the outside backs.
"Julie is the perfect example of being ready to play when your name is called," Waldrum noted. "We threw into the fire early on in her freshman season and she rose to the challenge. She made some freshman mistakes, but she's so coachable and got better and better as the year went on. It's also going to be a tremendous benefit to have someone who already has that amount of experience in big situations."
Sophomore Stephanie Sohn (Ronkonkoma, N.Y.) will look to challenge Scheidler for playing time at that right back position. Sohn saw action in 17 games as a freshman last year, including 11 of the final 14 games. She is a very disciplined blue-collar player who is a superb complement to the rest of the Irish defensive unit.
Freshman Jessica Schuveiller (Plano, Texas) has caught the coaches' eye and may work her way into the mix on the back line this fall. Schuveiller is a former NSCAA prep all-region selection who possesses a bulldog mentality and comes from the highly-successful Sting Dallas club program that produced Henderson and Barg (the latter also was her teammate at Plano West High School for three years).
"Jessica reminds me a whole lot of (former Irish All-American and current Canadian National Team member) Melissa Tancredi," Waldrum said. "She's one of those players that no one is going to want to play against because of her physical style. I like the way she can bring an added level of toughness and intensity on the back line and really make opponents pay the price for coming into her area."
Perhaps the most pressing question facing Notre Dame in 2008 will be identifying a new starting goalkeeper. Lauren Karas turned in a yeoman effort during her final two seasons with the Irish, finishing second in school history with a .902 career winning percentage (54-5-2) and ranking 18th on the NCAA career goals-against average list (0.65).
Junior Kelsey Lysander (San Diego, Calif.) is the veteran in this season's goalkeeping competition, having appeared in 14 games during her first two years, making three starts. She has a 1.18 career GAA and has started both season openers in her tenure, pitching shutouts against Iowa State (9-0) as a freshman and Michigan (0-0; split) last year.
Sporting the prototypical goalkeeper frame (5-foot-10) and a tremendous work ethic, Lysander looked solid in the spring 2008 season, starting the exhibition win over the Mexican National Team and making four big saves (1 GA) to keep the Irish level and set the stage for the comeback victory.
"Kelsey really had a good spring and started to show that she could respond in high-pressure situations like that Mexico game," Waldrum said. "She's gaining more and more confidence in her game, and going into the fall, I'd say she's got the inside track to be our No. 1 goalkeeper."
Sophomore Nikki Weiss (Redding, Conn.) appeared in seven games as a freshman last year, starting three times. She posted a 1.53 GAA and a 1-2-1 record, sharing three shutouts while saving seven of 13 shots in 352 minutes. Both of her losses last season came in overtime, with one (Stanford) ending on a penalty kick. At 5-foot-11, she has the physique and all-around skills to command the 18-yard box and evolve into a significant force on the college level.
Weiss played the second half in the spring 2008 exhibition win over Mexico, earning the victory with a clean sheet over the final 45 minutes. She also preserved the win with a pair of key stops in the closing moments, coming out to smother a breakaway opportunity and then corralling a wind-blown cross that flirted with the goalmouth.
"Nikki has all the potential to be a solid `keeper for us," Waldrum noted. "If we can get her to be a bit more consistent in her play, both in training and game situations, she's going to push Kelsey for the starting spot."