If the 2007 Notre Dame team was the equivalent of Ken Griffey, Sr., then this year's squad is Ken Griffey, Jr. In other words, the modern version is much better than its predecessor. Which is pretty telling, considering the Irish made it to the NCAA semifinals last season.
Notre Dame heads into the Big East tournament in better shape than last year's team for a variety of reasons, including health, depth and more experience playing with each other than Snoop Dogg has with cannabis.
Last season, the Irish began the season 2-3-2 and had to essentially dig themselves out of that early hole for the remainder of the regular season. The 2008 team is in better position to make a national title run because it has been able to stay fresh and allow numerous players to contribute off the bench. Not to mention that immaculate 18-0-0 record.
"The season last year was so difficult because we had such a slow start, you know," Irish coach Randy Waldrum said. "We struggled so much early last year that we were in a position where we had to win to keep the hopes of playing. And [it was difficult] not knowing where we were going to be seeded and where we were going to be traveling and things. So it's a lot different where we sit today than where we sat a year ago."
Yeah, Notre Dame now sits in a La-Z-Boy whereas last year they were fighting for a seat on a run-down sofa.
The team's ability to avoid major injuries has been a major difference between this season's team and last year's edition. Neither forward Michele Weissenhofer nor defensive anchor Carrie Dew played all of last season at full strength. And Waldrum said seniors Kerri Hanks and Brittany Bock logged so many minutes during the regular season that they may have run out of gas in the 2007 postseason.
It's a much different picture this time around. Junior defender Haley Ford and freshman forward Melissa Henderson, among others, have allowed the Irish to rest key players like Dew and Hanks while hardly missing a beat.
"The depth of the team is better than what we've ever had," Waldrum said. "I think it's allowed us to stay sharper and a little bit more fresh all the way through. So I think that's the big difference."
But the biggest difference between last season's team and this year's might actually be the one extra year of experience. The senior class - which has racked up seemingly countless Big East regular season and conference titles, Final Four appearances and individual honors - is on a mission to win the National Championship that has eluded them. On the determination scale, they might actually fall somewhere between "Rocky" and "Captain Ahab."
"As a class, our freshman year we lost in the [national] quarters and then we lost in the finals and we lost in the semis so we're just kind of hoping this year will be the one to get that last step," Dew said.
Waldrum said that "hoping" is an understatement for the seniors' mindset as he compared them to the last class that led Notre Dame to a national championship.
"I think they're every bit as focused as any [class] we've had. They remind me a whole lot of the [2004 senior] class that won it," he said. "I said that, early in the year, this team reminded me of that team in a lot of different ways. I think part of it is the senior class this year has pretty much done everything except win a national championship."
Stay posted because there's a good chance that will change in about a month.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
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