Aug 22, 2013
DATE: Aug. 23, 2013
For all the places she's traveled, and all the matches she's played during her soccer career, Notre Dame sophomore Cari Roccaro will be doing something she's never done before on Friday night when the No. 10/5 Fighting Irish play host to No. RV/25 Illinois -- she gets to play in a season opener at the college level.
The versatile Fighting Irish back from East Islip, N.Y., and her veteran teammate, senior midfielder Mandy Laddish (Lee's Summit, Mo./Lee's Summit), missed Notre Dame's first seven matches last year (as well as the majority of the preseason) while representing their country at the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup in Japan. It was a unique and memorable experience for the pair, who helped the United States win its third U-20 World Cup title, defeating previously-unbeaten Germany, 1-0, in the final on Sept. 8, 2012, in Tokyo.
"It was so incredible to be up on that podium with your teammates, wearing the U.S. Soccer colors and holding up the World Cup trophy," Roccaro said. "It's special any time you get to play for your country, but it was something I don't think any of us will ever forget."
"We worked so hard to reach our goal, and had to overcome some adversity along the way, losing to Germany during the group stage," Laddish added. "We stuck together and in the end, we were world champions and that's something everyone on that team can be proud to say they were a part of."
Yet, for the all the success Roccaro and Laddish enjoyed in the Land of the Rising Sun, it kept them away from their Notre Dame teammates, including a talented, but inexperienced group of 12 freshmen that accounted for half the team's roster a year ago. For Laddish, she was missing the chance to help lead her younger teammates and teach them the Fighting Irish way, the standard of excellence that has lifted the program to three national titles and 12 NCAA Women's College Cup appearances.
The challenges was even greater for Roccaro, who not only was sacrificing an early opportunity to mesh with her classmates and adjust to the pace and physicality of the college game, but also the chance to build team chemistry and the instinctive connections on the pitch and in the locker room that build the foundation for championship teams.
"I'm not going to lie, it was really hard," Roccaro said. "When I got back from Japan, it was like starting from scratch and I really didn't have any established friendships or relationships with anyone. It takes time to create that kind of bond and even though Mandy and I had that connection, I didn't have it with the rest of the team in the beginning, and it took a while right in the middle of last year to get that going."
"When you don't have two players of Mandy and Cari's caliber in camp, that can be difficult, especially when you're as young as we were last year," Notre Dame head coach Randy Waldrum said. "Usually, you're able to get settled with some kind of a regular lineup by the fifth or sixth game, and here we are in game eight and Mandy and Cari are just coming back for their first game of the year. Then, on top of that, with Cari being so versatile, we were moving her around to different positions to see what fit best, so that delayed things even more and made it tougher to get connected."
Once the Fighting Irish duo returned to the Alumni Stadium pitch, the difference was noticeable for Notre Dame, which had gone 3-3-1 in its first seven outings, mixing occasional successes (a 2-1 win over No. 24/16 Santa Clara and a 1-1 draw at No. 19/18 Portland) with frustrating setbacks (a 1-0 season-opening loss at Wisconsin and a 3-0 loss at No. RV/22 Washington).
After Laddish and Roccaro stepped into the lineup for the BIG EAST Conference opener against Louisville (a 2-1 Fighting Irish win), Notre Dame went unbeaten in 14 of its final 17 matches, earning a share of the BIG EAST National Division title and reaching the NCAA Championship quarterfinals for the 15th time in school history.
Even in her limited time (16 matches), Roccaro did plenty to be named Soccer America National Freshman of the Year and earn third-team All-American honors from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) with six goals and an assist. Laddish similarly provided stability and playmaking in the midfield, starting all 17 matches following her return while collecting a goal and four assists, including the helper on the match-winning goal by then-freshman forward Crystal Thomas in a 2-1 NCAA Championship second-round victory over No. 10/12 Wake Forest.
Unlike last fall, Laddish and Roccaro have been regulars on the training ground this preseason, although Roccaro did miss a week while participating in the latest U-20 National Team camp in Carson, Calif. (Aug. 4-11). Both played significant minutes during the exhibition slate (Roccaro netted an insurance goal in the 72nd minute of the second preseason contest, a 2-0 win over No. 13 Baylor last Saturday), and they are expected to be in the starting lineup when the Fighting Irish kick off the 2013 season on Friday against Illinois.
"You want to have your best players together on the field as much as possible," Waldrum said. "It's a huge plus this year that they'll be with us from day one, so we can start to get things settled and moving forward quicker."
Roccaro and Laddish may get a chance to relive some of their World Cup memories on Friday, when Illinois comes to Alumni Stadium, as Fighting Illini senior midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo also was a member of last year's United States U-20 National Team. What's more, Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield served as an assistant for the American side, working primarily with scouting and team fitness.
DiBernardo is Illinois' top returning player, a playmaking midfielder who is a Hermann Trophy candidate (along with Roccaro) and one of the elite athletes in the Big Ten Conference, having piled up eight goals and five assists in 16 matches last year, as she and Rayfield returned to help the Fighting Illini reach the Big Ten Championship final and the second round of the NCAA Championship.
"Vanessa is a really talented player," Laddish said. "She's also really sassy off the field and is one of our best friends, and it'll be good to see her on Friday."
"Janet is a great coach who always puts together very organized and disciplined teams," Waldrum said. "They're still working out what their best formation will be, but I'd expect they'll want to do all they can to keep DiBernardo free in the midfield, because she makes it all work for them. I've had the chance to coach Vanessa with the (United States) U-23s and she's an outstanding player, someone we're going to really have to keep a close eye on Friday night."
LAST TIME OUT
Notre Dame finished with a 14-5 edge in total shots, including a 7-1 margin in the second half. The Fighting Irish also dominated in shots on goal (7-1; 5-0 in the second half), while corner kicks were even at 3-3, and fouls were nearly so (11-10 against Baylor).
It all helped support the successful debut of freshman goalkeeper Kaela Little, who went the distance and made one save to record the shutout. Michelle Kloss played all 90 minutes in the Baylor goal, registering five stops.
THE LAST TIME NOTRE DAME AND ILLINOIS MET
In extremely windy conditions that saw sustained winds of 40 miles per hour blowing from south to north, shots came at a premium, seeing the final tally lend Illinois a five-shot advantage at 14-9. The Fighting Illini also posted an 8-3 advantage in shots on goal, including 6-0 during the second half.
Notre Dame goalkeeper Maddie Fox kept her squad in the game recording a career-high seven saves in the match, including five important saves in the second half. The lone tally for Illinois came off the foot of Niki Read, with the 50th-minute tally standing up as the match-winner.
OH CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN
"I think all three of them will do a great job as captains," Waldrum said. "It wasn't really a surprise that Mandy and Elizabeth were chosen again, but it still speaks to the respect that their teammates have for them to be selected for a second year. As for Katie, it's great to get her in the captain's role as one of the team's younger players, because it will allow her to grow and develop in that leadership spot, something she can carry over next year and beyond after Mandy and Elizabeth graduate. I'm very happy with all of the leaders we have on this team and it should be a real strength of ours this year."
UP NEXT: NORTHWESTERN
Northwestern returns 24 letterwinners, including 10 starters, from last year's squad that went 7-10-2. The Wildcats open their season Friday night, playing host to Western Illinois before making the trip down the Indiana Toll Road for Sunday's match with Notre Dame.
Ticket packages for the 2013 Notre Dame women's soccer season may be purchased through the University's Murnane Family Athletics Ticket Office by calling (574) 631-7356 or visiting the ticket windows at Gate 9 of Purcell Pavilion weekdays from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (ET). Tickets also can be ordered on-line 24 hours a day with a major credit card through the official Notre Dame athletics ticketing web site, UND.com/tickets. Groups wishing to attend Fighting Irish soccer matches also can receive a discounted ticket rate -- contact Rita Baxter in the Murnane Family Athletics Ticket Office to learn more.
For more information on the Fighting Irish women's soccer program, follow Notre Dame on Twitter (@NDsoccernews or @NDsoccer), like the Fighting Irish on Facebook (facebook.com/NDWomenSoccer) or sign up for the Irish ALERT text-messaging system through the "Fan Center" pulldown menu on the main page at UND.com.
-- Chris Masters, Associate Athletic Media Relations Director