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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Squad sees improvement, returns to NCAA tournament in coach’s second season

When discussing what this year’s seniors have meant to the women’s soccer program at Notre Dame, head coach Nate Norman described them as a group that has learned to overcome adversity.

“I have watched this group for the past three years, and they have been a model of consistency for our program,” Norman said. “Anytime you go through a coaching change, there’s going to be some adversity. We didn’t have a great year in my first year [as head coach] in 2018, and in some groups, maybe players would have quit on the coaches or transferred, but this group really stuck with it and continued to play hard while also leading off the field.”

Enduring the first losing season in program history in 2018 laid the groundwork for the Irish to endure the 2019 season, another where overcoming adversity proved to be a pervasive theme. Notre Dame began its season with six-straight wins, two of which came against strong opponents in Saint Louis and rival Michigan.

“We definitely played really well at the beginning of the season, and winning games against a pair of NCAA tournament teams in Saint Louis and Michigan started us off on the right track and gave our players some confidence heading into our conference schedule,” Norman said.

However, that momentum was halted by a pair of losses to end Notre Dame’s non-conference slate. A late comeback attempt on the road against then-No. 7 South Carolina fell short to hand the Irish their first loss of the season. Returning home to Alumni Stadium did not better the situation, as the Irish surrendered three first-half goals in a 3-2 defeat against Big Ten opponent Iowa. They then lost another nail-biter on the road in their first conference game against Clemson.

Irish junior forward Eva Hurm battles a defender during Notre Dame's 2-3 loss to Iowa at Alumni Stadium on September 15.
Irish junior forward Eva Hurm battles a defender during Notre Dame's 2-3 loss to Iowa at Alumni Stadium on September 15.

“That was definitely a tough stretch for us in a lot of ways,” Norman said. “In those games, we really just couldn’t get over the hump. We felt in each of those games that at times we played well enough to win the game, but we just didn’t. Soccer is a unique sport in that way, and not taking care of the little things hurt us, especially against those really good teams.”

The Atlantic Coast Conference is consistently one of the nation’s toughest, and this year was no exception. The conference boasted six teams that finished the season ranked, making Notre Dame’s path to the NCAA tournament especially challenging.

“The ACC has great competition, and every game is a new challenge trying to figure out how to play against all of these talented teams,” Norman said.

After their three-game skid in mid-September, the Irish responded to finish 4-4-2 in conference play. While they did not beat a ranked opponent in 2019, Notre Dame secured double-overtime draws against then-No. 16 Louisville and then-No. 9 Duke. An overall 10-6-2 regular season record helped the Irish return to the NCAA tournament, where in the first round they beat Saint Louis once again. Notre Dame’s season ended in the second round, however, with another one-goal defeat against South Carolina.

There were a number of players who had strong seasons for the Irish in 2019. Junior midfielder Sammi Fisher led the team with six goals and five assists, while junior forward Eva Hurm also made big contributions for the Irish, scoring five goals and dishing out three assists.

“Those two players definitely took huge steps forward from their sophomore to junior years,” Norman said. “Both players have tremendous talent, and I think are really only scratching the surface of their ability, and we’re looking forward to seeing what they can do in their final year.”

Norman also praised the play of Shannon Hendricks and Autumn Smithers, two graduate students who anchored the Irish backline. Looking ahead to next season, Norman said Hendricks and Smithers will be difficult to replace on defense as will senior goalkeeper Brooke Littman, who played in 13 games this season.

While these players and other graduating seniors made key contributions on the field throughout their time with the Irish, Norman said their leadership off the field will be the hardest thing to replace.

“They were a group that was willing to sacrifice and do anything for the betterment of the team,” Norman said. “They never let anything affect the way they helped and served their teammates, and that is always a great example for our players.”

He said he has confidence in the players who are returning next season and is looking forward to watching the group continue to grow.

“I really like our team next year, and I think it’s the most talented team since I’ve been the head coach,” he said. “We have a lot of players that bring some great on-field attributes, and I think the biggest challenge for us will be to put the pieces together and make sure we have the proper leadership to get through any adversity the season throws our way.”