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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

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Women’s soccer continues to turn the corner towards sport's elite with strong 2023

Irish maintained consistency despite significant losses entering the season

It’s never easy to replace one of the best players in the country.

That was the job assigned to Notre Dame women’s soccer head coach Nate Norman this past season. Korbin Albert, an ascendant star who had played an outsized role in pulling the Irish to an NCAA quarterfinal appearance the previous fall, was gone. Productive forward Olivia Wingate, all-action wingback Brianna Martinez and reliable goalkeeper Mackenzie Wood were also lost. All told, Notre Dame lost five of the 11 starters from its final game in 2022.

Norman needed to blend together an influx of new talent and the experienced holdovers from his previous squad. He did, however, enjoy a boost from one intangible asset — a shift in mentality.

Entering 2022, the Irish had never beaten a top-10 team under Norman. They had made strides towards competing with the upper crust of an ACC always loaded with elite talent but had never cracked the top tier of the conference themselves. But 2022 offered a breakthrough year for the squad and their coach. Notre Dame dispatched both No. 2 Virginia and No. 3 Florida State at Alumni Stadium, part of an impressive 14-2-1 regular season campaign. 

The Irish didn’t have some of their key contributors from that campaign to help them in 2023, but they did have a new level of confidence in their ability to compete against the best of the best.

“That was a really important year for us,” Norman said. “I really believe it gave everyone the belief. Beating teams like Florida State and Virginia, making that run in the NCAA Tournament … That has driven us.”

Notre Dame’s 2023 campaign got off to an inauspicious start. Boasting the team’s highest preseason ranking in years, the Irish dominated opening day opponent Milwaukee in just about every metric possible — except for the scoreboard, as the Panthers found an equalizer via a bizarre long-range effort with just 30 seconds left on the clock. 

From there, though, the Irish would find their stride. Some growing pains were expected and indeed arrived in the form of a frustrating defeat at home to Michigan and an ugly 4-1 loss in Tallahassee against eventual national champion Florida State. Notre Dame wouldn’t advance as far in either the ACC or NCAA Tournament as it had in 2022. But the Irish showed fortitude, never losing two games in a row en route to the squad’s fourth season with double-digit wins in five years. Perhaps more importantly, though, they achieved the much-needed task of further establishing some building blocks for the program’s next chapter.

Notre Dame’s upcoming personnel exodus makes the one the team endured last offseason look paltry in comparison. Defensive stalwarts Eva Gaetino and Waniya Hudson will both depart, as well as three of the team’s top four leaders in points from this past fall. Just four of the players who started the team’s opener in August will be on the roster for next opening day.

One of those players is Leah Klenke, who emerged as an all-ACC level midfielder in a breakout campaign. Her 10 assists led the team by three, and the sophomore hardly ever left the field while being deployed out wide, as a center back or in the midfield depending on the match.

But Norman thinks even more is possible in the future for the versatile Houston native.

“She went from as a freshman being a great role player for us to sophomore year being one of our most effective players,” Norman said. “She did a lot of great things. Can [she] be the best wide player in the country [in 2024]?”

The Irish will be banking on further growth from Klenke as they prepare to take the field this summer with one of the youngest squads in the ACC. Norman and his staff will welcome an incoming freshman class that exceeds prior team norms in both size and talent.

A group of 13 freshmen will arrive in South Bend next month, all part of a potentially game-changing class that TopDrawerSoccer ranked fourth nationally. Six of those players have experience to some degree with youth national team camps. With a number of starting spots open for the taking, Norman has high hopes that the class will be able to make an immediate impact.

“There’s a good amount that will be able to help us right away,” Norman said. “This class is a class we’ve worked on very hard for the last couple of years … I think there’s about another seven or eight players inside that class that have a chance to be starters from day one. It’s a group that we’re excited about.”

Notre Dame women’s soccer is a program backed by a national championship pedigree. Just two schools have more titles than the Irish, who last reached the collegiate summit in 2010. Norman’s squad has had a taste of what it feels like to compete on the game’s biggest stages, and it’s confident an experience-building 2023 has only made its core stronger as it chases another banner.

“We have a belief in our team now that we really can win a national championship,” said Norman. “When I took over, especially the first few years, we didn’t really even talk about that. We kind of talked more about, ‘Hey, what’s the next step we can take? We’re a top-30 team, can we be a top-25 team? Then can we be a top-20 team? Can we then be a top-10 team?’ … I think the last few years we’ve been able to put ourselves in that top-10 to 15 where we’re right in the mix.”