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Thursday, June 13, 2024
The Observer

Stellar freshmen play complements senior class

CARY, N.C. — The class of 2011 has reached the College Cup in each of its four years at Notre Dame. Not until this year, however, did the seniors reach the pinnacle — and they did so with only rookies tallying goals in the team's final three games of the season.

Some would find it amazing that freshmen had the presence of mind — or were even given the opportunity — to succeed on the biggest stage of them all. Irish coach Randy Waldrum, however, had this exact scenario in mind all along.

"We believe in playing young players right from the beginning of the year," Waldrum said. "We play them early so they're ready for this stage at this time of the year."

Several Irish freshman — midfielders Elizabeth Tucker and Mandy Laddish, forward Adriana Leon and defender Kecia Morway — have been standouts all season long, but they came up biggest of all during the NCAA tournament. Tucker scored both goals in Notre Dame's 2-0 quarterfinal matchup against No. 3-seeded Oklahoma State. Laddish showed off her impressive speed in beating three Ohio State defenders off the dribble and firing a shot past the Buckeyes' all-tournament-team goalkeeper to score the only goal the Irish needed to reach the national championship. Leon scored the game-winner in the College Cup final. Morway was instrumental to the Irish's shutting down of Stanford's offensive juggernaut, Christen Press. Leon and Laddish were both named to the all-tournament team.

"I was very impressed with them," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "They're some good players."

Though Waldrum has long been a proponent of playing freshmen who were the best at their position, his hand was somewhat forced early in the season when junior midfielder Courtney Barg went down with an ankle injury early in the season. Laddish stepped in and has excelled at the holding midfield position all season long, starting all 25 contests on her way to being named to the Top Drawer National Team of the Year and Big East all-Rookie team. She was joined on the National Team of the Year by Morway and on the Big East All-Rookie team by Tucker. Waldrum credited the poise of the newcomers with their consistent appearances and play in big games throughout the season, such as the early-season marquee matchup against then-No. 8 Santa Clara.

"With the kind of schedule that we play nonconference, and our conference now is such a great conference — you get a huge game every weekend — our players play early so that they're ready for this day and this time of the year," Waldrum said. "It would be a drastic coaching mistake on my part to have brought Kecia Morway or Tucker or Mandy Laddish along slowly, and now all of a sudden say, ‘Here you go, we're giving you a start on the biggest stage of the year.'"

With the national championship on the line, Waldrum knew his strategy would pay off.

"Before the game, I told [Leon], ‘I've got a feeling you're going to get the game winner today'," he said.

After he was validated, he spoke highly of his freshmen — and not just for their play in the final games

"I really can't say enough about them all year long," Waldrum said. "They've been great."

Despite the efforts of the freshmen, Waldrum made sure to focus on his seniors, who with the win, became the senior class with the most wins in the country.

"The main thing I'm really proud about is this senior class," he said. "You always hate to have one of your senior classes get out without getting one, so I'm really, really happy for the senior class."

To his freshmen, however, he paid the ultimate compliment.

"Those kids, they've got a season under their belt," he said. "They're veteran players."