Sept. 18, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - On a sun-swept Wednesday afternoon, University of Notre Dame women's soccer coach Theresa Romagnolo divided her Fighting Irish women's soccer team into two squads.
Romagnolo went with a short-field scrimmage. The Irish responded with fierce intensity.
No. 18/12 Notre Dame (5-2-1) waged an arduous game simulation magnified by the short field as the Irish tuned up for a marquee matchup to open the Atlantic Coast Conference season.
Notre Dame, a winner of three national championships, hosts No. 9 North Carolina, owner of 21 national titles. The meeting between two of the elite programs on the college women's soccer landscape is set for 7 p.m. (ET) Saturday on the Irish pitch at Notre Dame's Alumni Stadium.
Notre Dame roars into the match following a 2-1 victory against Toledo on Sunday. Sophomore midfielder Morgan Andrews scored both of the Irish goals, including the game-winner with 2:23 left against a Toledo club fresh off an upset of Ohio State. The Irish peppered the highly regarded Toledo defense for a 24-4 advantage in shots.
No. 9/8 North Carolina (3-2-1) is riding the momentum of back-to-back victories against Top 25 opponents. The Tar Heels beat No. 17 Arkansas 2-1 and No. 7 Penn State 1-0 in double overtime the weekend of Sept. 5
North Carolina holds the edge in the series (14-6-2). The Irish and Tar Heels have split the last four meetings in the series.
Romagnolo is hoping the Irish kick off ACC play with a strong showing against a perennial power. The Irish have been exceptional on defense recently. A shutout streak of 429:43 was snapped in the 76th minute last Sunday when Toledo got on the board. Prior to that, the previous goal the Irish allowed came Aug. 31 in the second half against USC.
"Every game, we've had different players step up," Romagnolo says. "One of the things we talk a lot about is group defending, so we're looking for all 11 players on the field to be committed to tracking back, covering for each other, and doing whatever it takes defensively."
Notre Dame will need to excel at possession. The Tar Heels like a high-pressure attack on defense that tries to force turnovers higher up the field. Romagnolo wants to see the Irish protect the ball and create offensive opportunities.
Romagnolo likes what she's seen from the Irish in practice this week.
"They're a fantastic group to work with," Romagnolo says of her players. "They show up every day to train, they work hard, they bring intensity, and they try to do what we ask of them."
Sammy Scofield, a senior defender/tri-captain from Geneva, Ill., says the Irish players are eager to play in a spotlight game.
"Whenever a rivalry game comes around, we all get excited," Scofield says. "Every time we play North Carolina, we always get a huge crowd, whether it's at their place, or here. I would say everyone is pretty amped up to play. It's going to be a hard game, but we're excited. It's going to be a fun one."
Scofield said that while rivalry games generate energy, players have to control their emotions.
"When the game starts, the first whistle, we want to get the first tackle, the first head ball, the first goal," Scofield says. "The energy from our emotions is definitely something that transfers to our play. I think it's pretty obvious, when we play this type of game, it takes the first 10 minutes for the game to settle in, because everyone is going as fast as they can to try to set the tone their way."
Junior midfielder/tri-captain Cari Roccaro of East Islip, N.Y., says the Irish will benefit from playing an early-season game against a powerhouse.
"We can learn from them, and see where we stand against teams like that, and see what we need to work on, and try to expose them," Roccaro says. "It's good to play really good teams early."
Roccaro likes the fact the ACC offers Notre Dame extra opportunities to play North Carolina, but that the league also offers other tough opponents.
"Instead of just seeing them in the tournament, now we may see them two or three times a year," Roccaro says. "After we take care of this one, then we move on to the next one. Every game is going to be huge in the ACC. I think we're going into it knowing it's a huge game, it's a home game, it's our first ACC game, but it's also just another soccer game. It's something we've been training for our whole lives. We'll just need to do the simple things right. We're ready to go."
Romagnolo wants the Irish to have the right mindset to handle the game.
"I think it's a great rivalry, and rivalries are fun, and people get up for them," Romagnolo says. "I think our group will get up for every ACC game, just because of how competitive the ACC is. There are probably five, six, seven teams who could win the ACC in any given year, which is unlike any other conference in the country. North Carolina obviously adds a little more to the mix."
Scofield says she and her teammates have been doing her part to add to the electricity of two teams with a national championship legacy clashing on the pitch.
"We've been talking in our classes and trying to get people to come to the game," Scofield says. "They've said they'll be there for us. The whole campus is hyped up about it."
-- By Curt Rallo, special correspondent