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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

ND Women's Soccer: Irish move past slow start, advance to Final Four

After a slow start uncharacteristic of the Notre Dame program, the Irish caught fire and rode their hot streak all the way to the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

When the team dropped a home match to Penn State on Sept. 23, it fell to 3-4-1 and the No. 24 spot in the national rankings. In the loss, Irish junior striker Kerri Hanks scored for the fourth straight game but it was not enough. After the Irish fell to Florida State in the College Cup semifinals to end the season, Irish coach Randy Waldrum said his team had realized it could not allow itself any more setbacks like the one against the Nittany Lions.

"It was to a point in the season when we could not afford to lose any more," Waldrum said.

Notre Dame displayed its sense of urgency by winning 12 straight contests after falling to Penn State. The streak began with a 1-0 victory at No. 25 Louisville in a notoriously difficult venue for road teams. In that game, Irish senior captain Amanda Cinalli notched her 34th career goal. Cinalli was plagued by an injury for much of the season but still finished with three goals and six assists.

The win over the Cardinals was the spark the Irish needed as they rolled to the Big East title game with 11 more triumphs. Notre Dame's unbeaten string was finally stopped by West Virginia, who defeated the Irish in a shootout to take the Big East championship.

But the loss to the Mountaineers did not cost the Irish much momentum as they rolled through the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Notre Dame was awarded a No. 4 seed for the tournament, giving the squad home games for the first two rounds.

The Irish defeated Loyola-Chicago 3-0 at Alumni Field in their Tournament opener on Nov. 16. Irish junior Brittany Bock scored twice in the win and Hanks picked up three assists. The big game was another in a long line of dominant performances by the duo. Bock finished with 16 goals and Hanks tallied 14 goals to go with her 21 assists.

The Irish also cruised past their second-round opponent, downing Illinois 2-0 at Alumni Field.

But Notre Dame did not have such an easy path in its Sweet 16 contest. The team had to travel to face No. 1-seeded North Carolina, who had taken down the previously-undefeated Irish in the 2006 NCAA title game.

This time, the script played out differently as the Irish ended a dream season for the Tar Heels, marking just the seventh time in 26 years that North Carolina has fallen in the NCAA Tournament.

For an Irish team that had a losing record after eight games, the victory in Chapel Hill showed the players that there was no limit to how far their talent could take them.

"Going down to Carolina and beating Carolina there, I think our kids felt there was no way we were going to lose again," Waldrum said. "They had a lot of confidence going in and I thought we were playing very well at the end of the year."

Notre Dame dispatched Duke at home on Nov. 30 in the NCAA quarterfinals to earn a trip to College Station, Tex., for the College Cup. The Final Four appearance marked the ninth time in 14 years the Irish had made it so far. Still, the quarterfinals win did not feel ordinary for Notre Dame.

"I don't know that we've had any other team in the history of this program that has struggled with the won-loss results so much early in the season and regrouped in this fashion, making it all the way back to the College Cup for the semifinals," Waldrum said after the win over Duke.

The Irish headed to the College Cup with high hopes after drawing a semifinals matchup against Florida State.

But the team received a rude awakening when Seminoles attacker Mami Yamaguchi scored just 15 seconds into the contest. Notre Dame rebounded on a goal by defender Carrie Dew but was forced to play from behind for much of the contest as Florida State again took the lead. After Irish defender Elise Weber netted a goal to knot the game at two, Seminoles midfielder Amanda DaCosta's tally proved to be the game-winner for Florida State.

Both Waldrum and Seminoles coach Mark Krikorian said that Notre Dame outplayed Florida State despite the result of the game.

"The disappointing thing last year in the final versus Carolina is that I don't

think we really came out and played our game until the final 15 to 20 minutes

of that game," Waldrum said. "But this time we came out and played well enough to win. [But] at the end of the day, unless you win it all you are going to be disappointed."

Waldrum did put a positive spin on the bitter result, pointing out that the Irish will lose key cogs in Cinalli and goalkeeper Lauren Karas but will return most of their starters.

"We still have a relatively young team and we hope we're back [in the College Cup] next year," the coach said.