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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame women’s soccer continues upward program trajectory

Max Petrosky | The Observer
Notre Dame celebrates a goal in their 3-0 win over N.C. State on Oct. 6

Notre Dame women’s soccer continued their steady ascent under head coach Nate Norman last season, reaching the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012.

A hot start to the season got the Irish off on the right foot. Notre Dame won their first seven games, including a road victory over a highly touted St. Louis side and dominant displays against Big Ten foes Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue.

Over the back half of September, the Irish hit a snag. Inconsistency plagued the team’s start to ACC play. In the span of just a week and a half, Norman’s side fell to Clemson on the road, notched a massive win over then-No. 2 Virginia and lost to Pitt at home. 

Eventually, though, Notre Dame found their stride. Following the Pitt defeat, the Irish went six games without conceding a goal. That stretch included a near-surreal 4-0 thrashing of Florida State, who would go on to win the ACC tournament and compete in the College Cup.

Following a brief foray in the ACC tournament, Notre Dame entered the NCAA tournament as one of four one-seeds. And for the first three games, the Irish looked the part of a national title contender. They breezed by Omaha before dominating Santa Clara in bone-chilling weather.

Another frigid win over TCU, however, would set up a date with North Carolina in the quarterfinals. And that date would prove to be Notre Dame’s final of the season. The eventual national finalist Tar Heels proved to be too stocked with firepower and left Alumni Stadium 2-0 winners.

Looking ahead to next year, Norman has several difficult questions to answer if he wants to continue his team’s upward trajectory. Sophomore midfielder sensation Korbin Albert emerged as arguably the best player in all of college soccer. She made the difference in countless games, most notably of the ACC tournament semi-final matchup with Florida State. Albert’s hat trick accounted for all three Notre Dame goals in an eventual penalty shootout loss.

Albert, unfortunately, was a little better than Norman would have perhaps wished. Her eye-catching season turned the heads of professional clubs, and Albert opted to forgo her remaining eligibility to sign with PSG in France. And while Albert’s signing marks history for the program, it also leaves Norman with a hole that’s quite difficult to fill. 

The Irish also lose a pair of departing graduate students who played significant yet vastly different roles. Graduate student goalkeeper Mackenzie Wood became a reliable anchor in net after winning the starting goalkeeping job early in the season. Wood became a commanding leader among one of the nation’s best defenses. Senior forward Olivia Wingate tied for Notre Dame’s team lead in assists and finished second in points, providing a dynamic option in attack.

While Norman’s departing senior class played a vital role in the team’s success this season, he stressed the importance of the collective in his team’s outlook as they reload. 

“I think when you have a really good program you become a system,” Norman said. “It’s more about having a culture and a system where you can plug different types of people in. We have really good players in our system, and really good players coming in.”

With a professional caliber goalkeeper, all-American midfielder and prolific forward all leaving, continuity in defense will be a point of emphasis for Notre Dame next season. The Irish return three starters along the backline. Senior defender Waniya Hudson and junior midfielder Eva Gaetino both are key parts of Notre Dame’s success. Freshmen defender Leah Klenke was a breakout star for Notre Dame in Norman’s three-back system. That trio should provide a solid foundation for success in 2023.

The potential X-factor for Notre Dame’s starting lineup in the fall is forward/midfielder Kristina Lynch. Lynch, a Granger native, transferred to South Bend last offseason from Florida State for a graduate year. But a preseason injury kept Lynch out for the season and allowed her to come back for a sixth year in 2023.  A versatile player with a wealth of experience, Norman highlighted that Lynch’s role as a leader might be just as important as her role as a player.

“What’s really great about Kristina is she’s a talented player, but she’s [also] an older player who’s seen a lot,” Norman said. “Even last year when we went to the tournament as coaches we leaned on her. We went to her and asked her things about her experiences. She’s been on a team that’s lost in the final, and she’s been on a team that’s won the title. So she’s seen both sides of it. Having that knowledge and experience is really important.”

Looking ahead to next season, Norman has goals both big and small for his squad and their continued ascension. Notre Dame is tied for the second most national titles of any team in their sport. But the team’s greatest successes are all a decade (or more) in the past.  Norman has the Irish back on track to be among the nation’s elite. But to once again reach the pinnacle, he stresses, his squad will need to do the little things right.

“We want to win a national championship and that will continue to be our goal … But we also want to control the controllable. Can we come out and work hard every day, can we continue to grow and develop players … If we continue to take care of that, everything else will take care of itself,” Norman said.