Dec. 5, 2004
By Pete LaFleur
The dawning of Sunday, Dec. 5, will mark the final day in a four-month quest for the Notre Dame women's soccer team. The Irish have navigated their way through the 2004 season with a nearly perfect record (24-1-1) and now stand just one win away from the program's second national title.
The team's odyssey began way back on Aug. 10, when the veterans and newcomers gathered for the first time before embarking on an eight-day training trip to Brazil. The Irish played six games versus top semi-pro teams in the Sao Paulo area, battling against players from a soccer-crazed nation that rapidly has emerged as a force in the women's game.
On the final night of the team's stay in Brazil, sixth-year Notre Dame head coach Randy Waldrum reflected back on the week's events and progress. He was pleased not only with the team's performance on the field but also - and maybe even moreso - with its spirited camaraderie throughout the trip.
"I don't think they want to leave," said Waldrum on that final night at the Vitoria Hotel, which took on almost a dorm-like atmosphere for the Irish players and included a variety of team activities such as volleyball and their trademark dance-a-thons.
"I already can tell that this is a group who truly enjoy being together," added the veteran of 22 previous seasons as a college coach. "They care about each other and want to achieve great success for one another. And, believe me, that is a great starting point for any team to have."
Now, 117 days after they departed for Brazil, the Notre Dame women's soccer team enters its final day of the 2004 season. It has been a year filled with individual accomplishment and team domination, one in which the Irish have made a strong case for being the nation's top all-around program.
Here's a look at nine key factors that have shaped the 2004 season:
(1) Overcoming Adversity - Notre Dame advanced to the final weekend of the College Cup in the first two seasons of the Waldrum era ('99 and '00) and the Irish program certainly was poised to make a run at the NCAA title in the ensuing seasons - but a series of key injuries and bad luck forced the Irish to early exits from the NCAAs in '01, '02 (albeit in the round of 16, after a hard-fought game at top-ranked Stanford) and again in '03.
The 2002 season saw the Irish make a lateseason rally despite a run of injuries that sidelined such standouts as Vanessa Pruzinsky
, Ashley Dryer
, Annie Schefter
and Gudrun Gunnarsdottir
(All-American Candace Chapman
then was forced from the NCAA showdown at Stanford with an early MCL knee injury).
As much as Notre Dame has dominated in 2004, the 2003 team may have fashioned a more impressive run. That No. 2 -ranked squad raced to an 18-0-1 start before the injuries and fluke losses got the best of them. The Irish totaled 20 more shots (73) than opponent shots on goal (53) during the '03 season, posted the 5th-longest shutout streak in NCAA history (10 games), set an ND record by playing 16 games without facing a deficit (the '03 Irish trailed a grand total of 7 minutes in its first 19 games) and finished in the national top-5 for scoring (3.04 goals/gm) and goals-against-avg. (0.49). Ultimately, a slew of injuries that totaled 111 games (and sidelined the likes of Chapman, Gunnarsdottir and Randi Scheller) took their toll, capped by lateseason injuries to All-Americans Amy Warner and Melissa Tancredi.
The 2004 team could have been slowed by the pitfalls that snared previous Irish teams - but instead the current squad has risen above injuries to Scheller, Mary Boland and Susan Pinnick (among others) that have totaled 105 games. That does not even take into account the season-long absence of forward sensation Kerri Hanks, the nation's No. 4-rated recruit who elected to delay the start of her college career in order to play with the U.S. team at the recently-completed Under-19 World Championship.
"This season is a tribute to the current players but they also feel a sense of responsibility and indebtedness to those who came before them," says Waldrum. "Every season in the Notre Dame soccer tradition is linked together and this season certainly will impact the future. But this team truly has forged its own legacy and is very deserving of every success that comes their way."
(2) Winning the Possession Battle - Waldrum's teams at Notre Dame always have prided themselves on playing a possession brand of soccer that thrives on a pressing style in which the Irish lock the ball into the middle and attacking third. Success in this strategy requires a hockey-like forecheck from the forwards (Chapman, Katie Thorlakson and Amanda Cinalli) who also must have top 1-vs.-1 skills and the ability to squirt away from trouble, and a group of midfielders (Schefter, Jen Buczkowski and Jill Krivacek) with excellent field vision and deft passing ability.
Notre Dame's "lockdown" style once again has produced more goals for the Irish (69) than opponent shots on goal (65) while the Irish have allowed just 43 corner kicks all season (1.7 per game). Buczkowski's head-up dribbling style and ball-on-a-string possession allow her to run the show from the central midfield position while the 5-foot-11 Krivacek's combination of strong play in the air and surprising ball skills only help to keep the opposition out of Notre Dame's defensive third. Finally, all four starting backs (Tancredi and Gunnarsdottir centrally and Christie Shaner and Kim Lorenzen on the outside) have the all-around skills to quickly work the ball "around the horn" while playing quality driven balls or accurate long serves as the situation dictates.
The team's overall possession dominance can be seen in the fact that Notre Dame never has lost in the Waldrum era when claiming a 2-0 lead (80-0-0; 230-0-1 all-time, with 207 straight wins dating back to 1992).
(3) Filling the Goal Void - Notre Dame lost three key members of its offense with the graduation of the 2004 seniors, as forwards Amy Warner (10G-12A), Amanda Guertin (11G-6A) and attacking midfielder Kimberly Carpenter (6G-5A) had combined for nearly 40% of the team's goals (27 of 73) in '03 (Guertin also finished with 48 career goals while Warner had 37). When current senior Mary Boland (team-best 12G in '03) was lost early in '04 due to a broken leg, the Irish suddenly were left with a group of returners who had combined for just 45% of the goals in '03.
Add in the preseason injury to highly-touted forward Susan Pinnick (she has missed the entire '04 season due to a summer van accident with her club team) and the absence of fellow frontrunner Hanks - and there was plenty of reason to wonder if the Irish would struggle scoring goals in 2004.
The answer to those concerns has been "no problem," as Thorlakson has erupted for an historic season (22G-24A) while Chapman has answered the call with a 12-goal season, after readjusting to the forward position (she started at right back in '01 and '02 before being injured in '03). Cinalli also has done her share with a 10-goal season, becoming the first Irish freshman with double-digit goals since Warner and Guertin did it in 2000.
(4) No-Fly Zone - Notre Dame's 2004 opponents consistently have pointed to ND's dominance in the air as a key to the team's success. The unquestioned leader in that area is Tancredi (a.k.a. "Air Canada"), who has come to consider a 90% success ratio in heading duels to be an off-day. Tancredi - who credits her leaping ability to past participation in volleyball (she often was cast as a 5-9 middle blocker) - also is a top heading threat on set plays, as is fellow defender Shaner and defensive midfielder Krivacek (who has shown a big boost in the air from '03 to '04, as has fellow midfielder Schefter).
"We usually can tell how well we are doing in a game if we have a good edge over the other team in the heading duels," says Krivacek, whose biggest header provided the 90th-minute gamewinner vs. Wisconsin in the NCAA second round.
Speaking of corner kicks, Notre Dame's dominance in the air also can be seen in the fact that the Irish have scored nine times this season off corner kicks (including five in the postseason, all served by Thorlakson) while holding the opposition without a corner-kick goal.
(5) Teen Spirit - The fun-loving nature of the Notre Dame team can be traced to a spirited nine-member sophomore class that hails from seven different states (Arizona, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas). The veteran member of the team - 5th-year defender Tancredi - also plays a central role in the team in the team's focus on fun and unity, a bond that has included many hours of group singing and dancing (whether in a pregame situation or during an off-day excursion).
"I knew that Notre Dame as a whole demanded excellence and I knew there would be extremely hard-working people here," says second-year Notre Dame assistant coach Dawn Greathouse.
"I did not expect to be able to work with a team that is so competitive but also has so much fun, on and off the field. If you lose that perspective, you get away from a great part of soccer and team sports. I really think the closeness of this team and their ability to enjoy the whole process are huge factors in their success."
The close-knit nature of the Irish team is all the more noteworthy considering that the players hail from 13 different states (those above, plus California, Connecticut, Indiana, Missouri Oregon and Washington), two Canadian provinces, Iceland and Finland.
(6) One-Two Punch - While Notre Dame's success has included big-time contributions from a deep group of players, Thorlakson and Tancredi stand out as possibly the most dominant at their respective positions in all of women's college soccer. Each is among the final 15 candidates for the Hermann Trophy and no other team had a forward and defender on that list while Tancredi joined Tennessee's Keely Dowling as the only defenders among the final-15.
Thorlakson hit the ground running with a 7-point first half vs. Baylor in the season opener (3G-2A) and added another 7-point half the next week vs. #4 Santa Clara, finishing with 3G-2A for the most points ever by an ND player vs. a top-25 team (8). She has closed the season on a similar tear, currently riding a 10-game point streak (two shy of the ND record) that includes a team-record 25 points in postseason play. Despite being the opposition's center of attention, the 5-foot-3 sparkplug has scored or assisted on each of ND's last five goals and 23 of the last 27 while ranking as just the fifth Division I women's player ever to reach 22G-22A in the same season. Her 68 points (22G-24A) rank second in Notre Dame's storied history and are just four shy of the record set by Cindy Daws in her 1996 Hermann Trophy season.
Tancredi (as mentioned in above notes) is the veteran leader of a Notre Dame defense that has allowed just 13 goals (0.50 GAA), 64 shots on goal (2.5/gm) and 43 corner kicks (1.7/gm) in 26 games this season. Her combination of speed, strength and a devastating display in the air make Tancredi a slam-dunk candidate for best defender in the women's college game today.
(7) Man with the Plan - Randy Waldrum's six seasons at Notre Dame began with trips to the College Cup's final weekend in 1999 and '00 while his last two Irish teams now have combined for an .890 winning pct. (44-4-2). He is nearing a +100 ratio of wins to losses in his Notre Dame career (118-20-5, .843) and likely will be named national coach of the year when the whirlwind 2004 season comes to an end.
Waldrum never will be known as a yeller and a screamer but he engenders great respect from his players, both past and present.
"Randy respects the team as players and as people, and that commands respect back," says Greathouse, who played for Waldrum at Baylor.
"You want to do the best for him and don't want to let him down. That's how I felt and that's how it is now for the current players."
Adds Tancredi: "He's a coach who can take any player and put her in a position where she is going to shine. He just has a great sense for soccer and a deep understanding of the game that rubs off on all of us."
(8) True Student-Athletes - As a group, the ND women's soccer team posted a 3.32 team GPA in the '04 spring semester while seeing 22 of 25 players register a semester GPA of 3.0-plus (with 13 at 3.4-plus). On a team overflowing with Academic All-America candidates, two current juniors - Schefter (3.73 cumulative GPA, pre-professional and psychology double major) and goalkeeper Erika Bohn (3.63, art studio) - recently were named to the official Academic All-America team ... Buczkowski also was on the Academic All-America ballot and received first team Academic All-District V honors (3.37, business) while Shaner was a second teem Academic All-District V pick (3.42, design) ... others of note include Gunnarsdottir (3.31, finance) and Lorenzen (3.53, business).
The Notre Dame women's soccer program's unmatched tradition of Academic All-America excellence includes 15 selections in the past 10 seasons - more than double the total from any other team (UNC has the 2nd-most in the last 10 years, with 7. ND's 2003 squad was the first in women's soccer history ever to produce three Academic All-Americans and the '04 Irish team would have matched that feat if not for the early-season broken leg suffered by Boland (disqualifying her, based on the required 50% of games played). Boland would have been a strong contender for Academic All-American of the Year, due to her 3.90 cumulative GPA as a psychology major (4.0 in fall of '03) and status as a first team all-BIG EAST player in '03.
(9) Poise Over Panic - Waldrum has remarked throughout the season how proud he is with the team's response under pressure, with a 9-1 record in on-goal games to go along with nine other wins by a margin of 3-plus goals.
The team's first test in a tight spot came on Sept. 3 at the Notre Dame Classic. One year earlier, ND and Stanford had played to a scoreless tie at the Santa Clara Classic and the 2004 game appeared headed for a similar result - despite a suffocating Irish defense that ultimately would hold the Cardinal to three totals shots (two on goal). Schefter stepped forward in the 82nd minute to nail a penalty kick and deliver the 1-0 win.
Two days later, Santa Clara twice came back to tie the Irish but the hosts quickly responded each time to retake the lead. Just 100 seconds after SCU had forged a 1-1 game, Thorlakson broke free into the box and was taken down hard before cashing in the PK. The Broncos later scored again for a 2-2 game but the Irish retook the lead 2:03 later, when Buczkowski's thru-ball set up Thorlakson's crossing shot into the right side of the net (sparking a late surge for the 5-2 victory).
One week later, Notre Dame overcomes an early deficit and 100-degree heat at Arizona State to win, thanks to goals from Chapman and Tancredi (on a world-class volley of a free-kick service. The next weekend at UConn saw the Irish and Huskies locked in another classic battle when reserve outside back Kate Tulisiak stepped forward for a key interception and resulting cross that set up Cinalli's decisive goal in the 84th minute. Two days later at Syracuse, the upset-minded Orange tie the game in the 79th minute on an unusual shot from outside the box - but the Irish once again compose themselves to scored the decisive goal when Chapman plays a pass through traffic for Thorlakson in the 83rd minute.
The Irish returned home to face rare late-game deficit at Alumni Field, trailing Pittsburgh with 19 minutes left to play. But Tancredi again delivers a huge goal, deflecting a cross from Lorenzen past the 'keeper, and the Irish go on to a 3-1 win. A week later at West Virginia, the Mountaineers fired up their crowd by scoring early in the second half for a 1-1 game but the Irish dominated the run of the play in the lategoing while using Lorenzen's first career goal at ND and the clincher from Thorlakson for the 3-1 win.
Notre Dame answered another gutcheck on the road the next weekend at Georgetown, after seeing the Hoyas take the lead late in the first half on a wind-aided free kick that was knocked in at the far post. Just 59 seconds later, Cinalli delivered another clutch BIG EAST road goal (on a booming 30-yard strike) but the Irish still were on the verge of a major upset before Buczkowski took a pass from Jannica Tjeder and scored inside the near left post with 44 seconds left to play.
Buczkowski's flurry of four gamewinning scores in a four-game stretch continued six days later at Alumni Field, when she volleyed home an 80th-minute cross from Ashley Jones to produce a 1-0 win over Boston College. The next weekend saw a short free kick hand Seton Hall an early lead but Chapman scored to tie the game and the Irish went on to the 3-1 win, sparking a streak of 17 straight goals scored by Notre Dame while holding the opposition off the scoreboard.
The five NCAA tournament games have included three that reaffirmed the team's poise under pressure. Wisconsin opted for an extreme defensive posture in the second round and the Irish had nothing to show for a 17-1 edge in shots and 3-0 in corner kicks, with the clock ticking down the final minute in regulation. That's when Thorlakson's leftside corner kick found the head of the 5-foot-11 Krivacek at the near post, setting off a celebration as the Irish scored the game's only goal with 53 seconds on the clock.
Portland came to Alumni Field in the quarterfinal round as a team that had proven more than capable at playing from behind. A pair of early goals from Cinalli produced just that situation and the Pilots responded with a goal early in the second half. Momentum appeared to be tilting to the visitors when Thorlakson took the wind out of their sails, scoring directly off another leftside corner just six minutes after Portland had cut the lead to 2-1.
Notre Dame and Santa Clara both had a handful of first-half scoring chances in the semifinal matchup but the Irish were able to ride out the big-game jitters while dodging a few bullets to maintain the scoreless battle. Tholakson and Chapman then worked a give-and-go in the 73rd minute, producing the game's only goal and ultimately sending the Irish back to the NCAA title game.