Updated Nov. 25, 2000
By Pete LaFleur
When the Notre Dame women's soccer team walked off the field at San Jose's Spartan Stadium on Dec. 5, 1999-following a loss to North Carolina in the NCAA championship game-most college soccer experts figured that the following season would be primarily a rebuilding campaign for the Irish, who lost five starters to graduation (three of them All-Americans) from that NCAA runner-up team.
One year later, that same unproven Notre Dame squad has risen to the top of the national polls as the only undefeated team among 271 Division I women's soccer programs and the Irish-who already know the way to San Jose-are preparing for the program's sixth trip to the NCAA semifinals. During a wild season that has seen repeated upsets throughout the country-Nebraska and is the only other team with no more than two losses-the Irish have avoided the pitfalls that have snagged the other top teams, despite seeing two starters lost to injury at midseason.
"To have predicted that we'd be 20-0-1 heading into the NCAAs would have been a pretty bold statement, but looking back at it I'm not all that surprised-because of the character of this team," says Irish head coach Randy Waldrum, whose first two Notre Dame squad have combined for 44 victories, with just four losses and two ties.
"This team has shown great leadership and chemistry while playing with a lot of resiliency. It's a special group and we're looking forward to the next few weeks, because there's still a lot of work left to be done."
The biggest questions marks heading into 2000 fell in the defensive third, as the Irish bid goodbye to a pair of starting defenders-including four-time All-American Jen Grubb-while also losing All-America goalkeeper LaKeysia Beene. As things have turned out, no part of Notre Dame's game has been more consistent than its defense, which has allowed just eight goals (compared to 24 allowed in '99) while limiting teams to an average of six shots per game.
Senior Kelly Lindsey entered 2000 as the only Irish player with significant experience playing as a defender on the college level, but the two-year Irish captain missed the final five games of the regular season due to injury. And with highly-touted freshman Melissa Tancredi lost for the entire season due to injury, the pressure fell upon a group of unproven defenders and junior goalkeeper Liz Wagner-who had played just 377 minutes during her first two seasons, without any starts.
With Lindsey leading the way as the defensive organizer, the other three starters have evolved into capable players in their own right. Senior Kerri Bakker-who had started just three career games prior to 2000-settled alongside Lindsey at the other central defender spot and has proven to be a steady and heady performer who is a classic example of a player rising to the occasion when given the opportunity.
Junior Lindsey Jones likewise has excelled at the right back position-despite not converting to defense until 1999-and is a threat at the other end of the field due to her strong leg and slashing moves. Sophomore Vanessa Pruzinsky, the 1999 BIG EAST rookie of the year, also has her roots at another position-she scored 79 career goals as a high school forward-but the hard-nosed Pruzinsky has developed into one of the BIG EAST's top defensive players.
Senior Monica Gonzalez and sophomore Nancy Mikacenic have drawn starts in the defense-Gonzalez on the outside and Mikacenic at one of the central spots-and each has turned in solid performances, yielding a capable six-player rotation in the back.
"On some teams, it would be hard to use six defenders but it works because we've jelled so well," says Bakker. "We've had great communication and timing and we're always there to back each other up. We've just been able to stay focused and gain confidence all season."
Confidence likewise has been the key factor for Wagner, whose strong play has helped her maintain the starting role despite tough competition from sophomore Sani Post and freshman Lauren Kent. Despite often seeing little action during many games this season (due to the strong play in front of her), Wagner leads the nation with an 0.32 goals-against average and has come up big in the big games by totaling 38 saves and allowing just four total goals this season in 11 games vs. ranked teams and/or in the postseason.
"I've been able to gain confidence throughout the season and the defense has played great, which has helped in my transition," says Wagner, who arguably was the best player on the field while making eight saves in the 0-0 tie at UConn and eight more in the 2-1 NCAA quarterfinal win over Santa Clara. "I love pressure situations and that game at UConn was the best atmosphere I've ever played in, with the big crowd and the intensity of the game."
Notre Dame's 564-150 season shot edge is due in large part to its dominating play in the midfield, led by leading national player-of-the-year candidate Anne Makinen. Junior Mia Sarkesian-who was named most outstanding player at the 2000 BIG EAST Championship-and sophomore Ashley Dryer combine with Makinen to form a unique system in which they each play as a central midfielder, allowing each to showcase their strong distribution and playmaking skills.
"Most games are won in the midfield and those three players have played at a consistently high level for us this season," says Waldrum.
The Irish offense has coped with a large goalscoring void, after the departure of the graduates Jenny Heft (80 career goals) and Jenny Streiffer (70), who rank first and third on the Notre Dame all-time goalscoring list. With Makinen and ever-reliable senior Meotis Erikson ranking as the squad's top returning scorers, many scoring chances have fallen at the feet of the team's talented freshmen ... and they have delivered.
"The way that the freshmen have played this year has taken a lot of the weight off the shoulders of the older players," says Jones. "They are pretty composed players for just being in their first year."
The addition of first-year forwards Amy Warner and Amanda Guertin-combined with returning sophomore Ali Lovelace-has given the Irish attack a new dimension of raw speed. The net result has been a quick-strike capability that has added to the attractiveness of the team's style of play. Freshman midfielder Randi Scheller also has provided an offensive spark as one of the team's top players off the bench.
Despite holding the nation's top ranking since mid-September, the Irish have avoided the temptation of getting too caught up in their own press clippings.
"It seems like so many people outside of the program are more
concerned about us being No. 1 than we are," says Jones. "It's a great
honor to be ranked No. 1 but we want to stay focused on doing what it takes
to still be in that position at the end of the season."