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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame WSOC ready to re-establish its blue-blood status

After the undisputed preeminent institution in collegiate women’s soccer, no other powerhouse program has the same national championship pedigree as Notre Dame. Besides the University of North Carolina, who has collected an incredible 21 of the 31 NCAA tournament titles contested, Notre Dame is second on the list with three national championships. Since Notre Dame’s last title in 2010, however, the Irish have failed to advance past the third round (or last-16) of the NCAA tournament. In 2018, head coach Nate Norman’s first year on the job, Notre Dame endured its first losing season in program history. Rather than being a precursor to continued mediocrity, however, it now appears that this difficult season was the starting block for a rapidly accelerating rebuild. In his second year on the job, Norman led a relatively young team to an 11-8-2 record and an appearance in the second round of the NCAA tournament, where they narrowly lost to eventual quarterfinalists South Carolina 1-0. With the Irish only dealing with a few key departures this season, I think Norman’s third year will be one to remember. If Notre Dame can play either this fall or in the spring of 2021, not only do I think that the Irish will take a massive step forward, but I also believe that they will show why Notre Dame is ready to rejoin the elite of women’s college soccer.

It is true that the Irish technically did not beat a ranked opponent last season, but as is often the case in soccer, results were sometimes misleading in conveying the overall balance of play. While there were emphatic losses to then-No. 1 Virginia and eventual national runners-up UNC, on many occasions, Notre Dame pushed ranked opponents to the brink. Often, the Irish dominated large swaths of play but ultimately fell short due to missed chances or lapses in concentration defensively. Norman admitted last year that this was often a source of frustration, especially when the Irish lost three consecutive games by a single goal in September, which included contests on the road against then-No. 7 South Carolina and No. 10 Clemson. The Irish did not abandon their exciting high-pressing, possession-based style, though, and it began to translate into better results against top opposition. Notre Dame fought then-No. 14 Louisville to a scoreless draw after double-overtime and then earned an impressive 1-1 draw at No. 9 Duke. After going down late in the first half, the Irish clearly became the better team after the break and finally got their just reward when Olivia Wingate equalized off a brilliant back-heel flick from Erin Hohnstein. While the Irish did not pull out a win that night, the progress was evident. In the last regular-season game of the year vs. Wake Forest, meanwhile, the Irish showed they were capable of grinding out a win with their backs against the wall. With an ACC tournament spot on the line in a miserable wintry mix, Notre Dame rebounded from conceding an equalizer in the last minute of regulation by scoring the winner with just 26 seconds left to play in double-overtime. If the Irish do get a chance to take the field this year, I am extremely confident that these narrow losses and draws against top teams will now translate into statement wins thanks to this valuable experience, especially as the abundantly talented Irish attack continues to realize its full potential. 

People who can score goals are usually the hardest to replace, and fortunately for Norman, virtually all of his attacking talent returns after last season, including last year’s team-leader in both goals and assists. Senior Sammi Fischer tallied six goals and five assists in a breakout junior season that included a second-half hat trick in a crucial 3-0 win over Miami. An attacking midfielder who loves to run with the ball at the backline, she is perhaps the Irish’s most potent game-changer. Fellow senior and all ACC-third team member Eva Hurm, who gained national attention after her “Olimpico” vs. Northwestern, returns as the team’s second-highest scorer in 2019. Juniors Luisa Delgado, who finished third on the team in points, and Wingate ensure that the litany of proven forwards and attacking midfielders does not end there. 

If you watched any substantial part of last season, however, you have to feel that the Kiki Van Zanten show is imminent. Given the wealth of attacking options at Norman’s disposal, it is understandable that she only started two games last season as a freshman, but her flair and poise made her a vital spark plug off the bench. Her electrifying pace and nifty nutmegs are enough to get Irish fans excited, but she displayed plenty of substance too, matching Delgado for third on the scoring charts with four goals despite her limited minutes. Most importantly, Van Zanten played the role of “super-sub” more than once. Her first collegiate goal was an 87th-minute winner at Michigan, and she also scored the only goal in Notre Dame’s scrappy win over St. Louis in the first round of the NCAA tournament, so delivering the goods when it matters most should not be an issue. 

Van Zanten, who has been a part of the U.S. Women’s National Team youth setup since the U15 CONCACAF Championship, highlights a strong group of players who have recently earned call-ups to the youth national team. Sophomore midfielder Maddie Mercado and junior defensive midfielder Brianna Martinez competed at the prestigious La Manga tournament (an annual tournament for U-19 national teams) and the U-20 CONCACAF Championship, respectively. With four All-Americans headlining a stellar incoming freshman class as well, I think Norman is already proving he can secure and develop top-class talent that can propel Notre Dame back to its rightful place near the summit of the sport. 

The Irish will need to find a new center-back pairing after the departure of grad students Shannon Hendricks and Autumn Smithers, who now plies her trade with the Portland Thorns of the NWSL. Senior Jenna Winebrenner started every game on the back-line last season and was usually accompanied by junior Jade Gosar (who started 18 of the 21 games), however, and I expect that their transitions from more wing-back roles to leading the line will be practically seamless. Goalkeeper Brooke Littman also departed following graduation, but junior Mattie Interian already split time with her last season and was chosen for both of Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament games, so there will still be continuity in net for the Irish as well. A convenient narrative last year was that Norman’s team was talented and played exciting soccer but was too inexperienced to truly challenge the giants of the ACC. It may seem like a large jump for just one year, but I think the Irish are now a dependable squad that will have the ability to remind the conference, and the country, of Notre Dame’s blue-blood status. 

Of course, determining what would be considered “rejoining the elite” of women’s college soccer might be difficult this year after the NCAA postponed all fall championships besides FBS until at least the spring. If the Irish do play in the spring, a national championship is probably a step too far, but I think Notre Dame would have a genuine chance of reaching the College Cup for the first time in a decade. Likewise, whether the ACC ー far and away the most competitive conference in the sport ー goes ahead with its plan to start play in September or ends up moving the season to the spring, reaching a conference championship game is a goal, that is well within reach. 

Allison Thornton | The
Irish junior forward Eva Hurm pushes off of a defender during Notre Dame's 2-3 loss to Iowa on Sept. 15 at Alumni Stadium.