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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
The Observer

Leading by example, Leah Klenke looks to help ‘dream school’ Notre Dame in the postseason

Sophomore defender Leah Klenke moves ahead with the ball during Notre Dame's 3-1 win over Ohio at Alumni Stadium on Sept. 11, 2022.

Leah Klenke ending up at Notre Dame was all but an inevitability. 

Though she grew up over a thousand miles from South Bend in Houston, Texas, the Irish were always a presence for the double Notre Dame legacy.

“Both of my parents went to Notre Dame, and my grandpa played baseball here. So I just always grew up as a Notre Dame fan," Klenke said. "It was always kind of my dream school. And then as I got older, looking more into where I wanted to go to college, Notre Dame, I knew was academically really good, which was really important to me. And also, a top soccer school in the nation. So I thought it'd be the perfect fit. And luckily, thankfully, I was able to come here and commit.”

It didn’t take long for Klenke to make her mark at her dream school. She started her first game as a freshman, scoring just seven minutes into her collegiate career. Though her impact on the stat sheet would slow following a move to centerback, Klenke’s overall influence only grew. She emerged as a near every-minute starter for one of the best defenses in the ACC.

This season, though, Klenke has returned to being one of Notre Dame’s statistical leaders. The sophomore has tallied 10 assists on the season, good for second in the conference. She’s scored or assisted in six of the Irish’s last seven games, helping lead the team to a second-place finish in the ACC.

Part of Klenke’s return to the stat sheet has been the new role she's taken on in head coach Nate Norman’s 3-5-2 formation. Slotting into the lineup as a wingback, Klenke’s playing closer to where she was initially recruited to play.

“Coming into college, I thought I'd be playing the wingback position,” Klenke said. “But as a freshman, we had two great seniors that were already there … But then during spring season, after the season was over, they started to put me in at the outside fullback position. I like running a lot, so that helps because I can get forward and back really easily. So I just started playing there in the spring, did pretty well and stuck.”

A new position isn’t the only change in Klenke’s role at Notre Dame this season. Now a sophomore, with a year of collegiate experience under her belt, she has emerged as a leader for the Irish. Notre Dame’s squad doesn’t lack for experience — seven upperclassmen started the team’s final regular season game against Clemson. But Klenke’s status as a player that’s on the pitch for the entirety of almost every game means she’s had to find her voice in a way she hadn’t as a rookie.

“I want people on my team to look up to me and hopefully seek inspiration from my actions. So I always try to work hard all the time,” Klenke said. “And one of the biggest things about me is I'm super positive. So I always stay positive, see the positive sides of anything. If people are having bad days, try to lift them up. I feel like that's kind of the role I've taken, and I hope to just continue that as I get older.”

Notre Dame and Klenke will now prepare for their most important stretch of the season, the ACC and NCAA Tournament gauntlet. The Irish reached the semifinals of the conference tournament last year, but fell to Florida State in a penalty kick shootout. The team then reached the national quarterfinals, but a loss to North Carolina doomed their College Cup hopes.

With Klenke utilizing her unrelenting hustle to lead the charge at fullback, Notre Dame hopes that this could be the year the program earns its first College Cup appearance of the Nate Norman era.

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