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Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024
The Observer

No. 13 Notre Dame to travel to No. 1 UNC for regular season finale

The No. 13 Irish will look to put the conference on notice Sunday ahead of the ACC Tournament when the Notre Dame women’s soccer team travels to Chapel Hill to face top-ranked North Carolina in the final match of the regular season for both teams. 

Sunday’s match is the 31st meeting between perhaps the two biggest blue bloods in women’s college soccer, though the Tar Heels (7-0-0, 6-0-0 ACC) hold a decided advantage in terms of both national titles and the all-time series record. Notre Dame (4-3-0, 4-3-0 ACC) is tied with Stanford for second among all NCAA programs with three national championships, but North Carolina remains in a class of its own with a staggering 21 titles. The Tar Heels are 20-7-3 versus the Irish and have won all five national championship games contested between the two programs.

Notre Dame has dropped its last three meetings with North Carolina, including a pair of 3-0 losses last season, but Irish head coach Nate Norman is excited to see whether his team is ready to compete with the country’s best.

Irish junior forward Olivia Wingate fends off a defender Sept. 15, 2019 against Iowa
Irish junior forward Olivia Wingate fends off a defender Sept. 15, 2019 against Iowa

“If we really have genuine aspirations to win national championships, these are the tests,” he said. “These [games] are measuring sticks. I think [North Carolina] and Florida State have kind of run our conference for the last four or five years. Those two teams are typically in Final Fours and championship games, and these are the teams that we have to beat if we’re being honest with ourselves.”

Notre Dame took a huge step toward clinching one of the eight spots in the ACC tournament Sunday with a 1-0 win at then-No. 13 Louisville. Chances were at a premium in a tightly contested affair, but senior midfielder Camryn Dyck slotted home a 69th minute penalty after a low cross from senior forward Olivia Wingate hit the hand of a sliding Louisville defender.

Dyck earned a spot in Top Drawer Soccer’s Women’s Team of the Week for her performance. In addition to scoring the winner, the Littleton, Colorado, native completed 83% of her passes against the Cardinals, according to Top Drawer Soccer. Junior goalkeeper Mattie Interian also made headlines after being named ACC Defensive Player of the Week. Interian made a miraculous save with her left hand in the 83rd minute when the Cardinals looked certain to bundle home a goal off a corner, but Interian made the best of her three saves for the afternoon to preserve the shutout. 

With key figures such as junior defender Jade Gosar, freshman forward Ellie Ospeck and senior forward Eva Hurm all unavailable due to injury, Norman was proud to see players normally used as substitutes such as Dyck, freshman defender Caroline Gray and sophomore forward Kati Druzina all step up in their extended minutes. Although Norman is hoping most of his injured players will be able to return in time for Sunday, he said showcasing this squad depth again will be critical if the Irish want to stay with the Tar Heels.

“[North Carolina] play[s] so many players,” said Norman. “They try to keep [the] game sped up, [so] we’re going to need a lot of players off the bench to match the speed and intensity level that they play with for 90 minutes.” 

After frustrating losses against Wake Forest and then-No. 4 Clemson in which the Irish dominated possession but ultimately conceded game-winning goals in the final minutes, Norman was impressed with his team’s patience against a Louisville team that likes to put lots of numbers behind the ball and limit space in behind. Although he expects Sunday’s match to be a more open affair, he said his team’s ability to play through North Carolina’s high press will likely determine the outcome. 

“I think the times that we’ve been successful against them, [and] I think the times other teams have, is when you are just calm under that pressure,” he said. “You can’t get flustered and just play direct, you can’t turn your back to them, but you have to be able to quickly make angles [and] move the ball.” 

Norman did admit this is a stingier and more balanced North Carolina team than in years past, however. At the time of publication, none of the Tar Heels’ eight goal scorers on the year have more than three goals for the season, but North Carolina has kept five clean sheets in the seven games leading up to their penultimate game of the season versus Louisville on Thursday night. North Carolina has outscored opponents 15-2 in 2020, but Norman said this undefeated Tar Heels squad plays more conservatively than some of the dominant North Carolina teams that preceded it. 

“I think in the past, they’ve been so aggressive in getting so many numbers in the attack that sometimes you’ll see scores like 6-1 or 6-2 against them, and now you’re seeing more scores like 2-0 or 1-0,” he said. 

The preseason All-ACC Team reflected North Carolina’s strength at the back, as defenders Maycee Bell and Emily Foxx joined Tar Heels’ midfielder Brianna Pinto on the list. North Carolina is led in both goals and assists by Rachel Jones, who has recorded three of each so far this season.  

As this unusual regular season comes to a close, Norman reflected on how his team has been forced to overcome a new set of challenges both on and off the field on top of what is already a difficult lifestyle for student-athletes.

“You always deal with injuries during a season, but there’s another layer of kids getting contact traced or someone actually getting COVID,” he said. “There’s also the extra stress and anxiety level, just doing all of this and traveling. And how they’re having to operate off the field and kind of secluding themselves and keeping their social circle small and things like that.” 

Nonetheless, Norman said his team has been blessed to be in one of the few conferences playing women’s soccer this fall and the season has brought a welcome sense of normalcy. 

“It allows us to come together as a group and compete and have success together, but [also] have struggles together, which I think are so important just in life in general and living a life that has some meaning and adventure to it,” he said. 

It is perhaps poetic that Notre Dame’s regular season will finish at No. 1 North Carolina after beginning the year on the road against the conference’s other current powerhouse, No. 2 Florida State. Norman is confident his team has learned from that dispiriting 5-0 loss in that curtain-raiser and expects proceedings to go very differently in Chapel Hill. 

“Hopefully we can put some stuff together and come out of there with a win because that’s what the plan is,” he said. 

Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday, and the match will be broadcast live on the ACC Network.