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    FIGHTING IRISH Lauren Fowlkes
    FIGHTING IRISH
    Lauren Fowlkes
    FIGHTING IRISH

    Nov. 5, 2009

    By Amy Farnum
    NCAA.com

    It was a rocky beginning for Notre Dame this year, but the Irish rebounded from the uncharacteristic start to be once again considered one of the top teams in the nation this season.

    The Irish suffered a stretch in September that included three shutout losses in four games, albeit to perennial powers North Carolina, Stanford and Santa Clara.

    At the time, Notre Dame was also working through some key injuries, losing senior midfielders Courtney Rosen and Micaela Alvarez for the season, while senior forward Michele Weissenhofer was sidelined for an extended period of time with a hamstring injury.

    "I think early on we played a couple games and we got through it, but then all of a sudden you jump in and play the type of caliber teams that we were playing, we really struggled offensively," said head coach Randy Waldrum. "The main thing we struggled with was getting anybody upfront that could really hold the ball for us long enough for us to make some kind of counter or build-up in our attack. That's where we got exposed a lot early."

    "It turned our world upside down because we're used to winning games and having those high standards," said junior Lauren Fowlkes. "At the time it was really hard, but it was definitely beneficial for the team."

    The Irish was outscored 10-3 during that tough stretch, and Waldrum needed a way for his team to create more scoring opportunities. So, he turned to Fowlkes, his star center back that helped the U.S. National Team win the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup last December.

    "That's kind of what got me thinking about putting Lauren upfront and changing things," said Waldrum. The one reason I did it was she is a big strong player with good height and good size - she's got a very physical presence to her. I felt like she could hold the ball for us and we could play off of her upfront."

     

     

    Fowlkes presence was immediately felt as she sparked the Irish offense with three goals and an assist in her first four games upfront.

    "It definitely took me awhile to get used to it and get comfortable with it, but it seemed to work out well," said Fowlkes. "Coach and everyone else thought it was best for the team so I was up for it and went for it.

    "It was a whole change in how you think about the game. Now, you're in charge of producing where in the past you're in charge of just the opposite. It definitely took awhile to get the right first touch and the right feel of the game. Holding the ball was a huge deal for me and I had to work on that. I had to work on shooting and my heading presence in the box - it was a big change, but not something I had never done before."

    However, the injury bug continued for the Irish and senior center back Haley Ford went down with a hamstring, and Waldrum tried to fill the hole by putting Fowlkes back again for a few games.

    "It was the same thing again," said Waldrum. "We just weren't getting it done offensively, and we moved her back up. It's never good to put a player in that position, but Lauren was fantastic about it with the attitude of `wherever you need me.'"

    Fowlkes has contributed eight goals and three assists on the season and her move up front coincided with the beginning of the Irish's 13-game unbeaten streak.

    "I think that it has sparked this turnaround," said Waldrum. "Not only was she doing a good job of holding the ball for us, but she was actually scoring some goals. She got us through that period when we needed to regain our confidence and gain our rhythm back as a team. She's continued to get better and better in that forward spot and she's very difficult to handle with her back to the goal now. Now, we're starting to get the goals from a lot of different players and that's what we didn't have early in the year."

    The native of Lee's Summit, Mo., missed the Irish's postseason run last year to the NCAA championship game while competing in Chile as a member of the U.S. U-20 National Team, so she is especially looking forward to the next few weeks.

    "This is what you put in the work for all year, and having to leave before it (the NCAA Tournament) last year was tough," said Fowlkes. "I couldn't be more excited for it this year."

    Notre Dame enters the BIG EAST Tournament as the fourth-ranked team in the nation and hopes to leave Storrs, Conn., with its 11th league championship this weekend while making their case for a high seeding in the upcoming NCAA Championship.

    "Fortunately, because of some of the things going around the country we worked ourselves back into the picture that if we win out the BIG EAST there is a good possibility that we could finish in one of those top four spots," said Waldrum. "You want to host as many games as you can come playoff time. That's what we'll be working towards this weekend as every top five team in the country will be trying to protect their territory.

    "The thing I'm the most proud of is that we put ourselves back in a position to be there. If you look at us when we're 3-3, there are probably a lot of people wondering if we would even be playing come playoff time."

    "We're finally putting it all together and it couldn't come at a better time," said Fowlkes.

    Notre Dame takes on St. John's University the BIG EAST semifinals on Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET. The game will be televised live on CBS College Sports.

    For more coverage of NCAA soccer, click here.

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