ACC – Clemson | NC State
Big XII – Iowa State | Kansas | Oklahoma | TCU | Texas | Texas Tech
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Georgetown | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | UConn | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Iowa | Michigan | Michigan State | Minnesota | Nebraska | Northwestern | Purdue | Wisconsin
Mid-Majors – Central Michigan | Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | La Salle | New Mexico | Rice | Richmond | Samford | Stephen F. Austin | Toledo | UMass | Utah State | Western Michigan | William & Mary
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Cal | Colorado | Oregon | Oregon State | USC | Utah | Washington | Washington State
SEC – Alabama | Arkansas | LSU | Mississippi State | Missouri | Ole Miss | South Carolina | Tennessee | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | Portland | San Diego | San Francisco | St. Mary’s (CA)
Scarcely has a defending national champion looked as fragile and average as Notre Dame did in the course of the 2011 season. Naturally, it was never supposed to be that way, as the Irish came into the new campaign looking every bit a threat to defend their crown despite some losses in personnel whose weight would only be fully understood at the end of a hard and disappointing season by Notre Dame’s lofty standards.
It was jarring to see Randy Waldrum’s side look so mortal after the lasting impressions the club had left during their run to the title in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. The Irish had devastated five foes up until the title game against Stanford, where only a sensational goalkeeping performance kept them from making it six sensational victories. The 1-0 win to Notre Dame flattered their opponents at the end of the day, and there was little doubt as to who stood superior at full-time.
A challenge for back-to-back titles had been expected, as Waldrum has generally made all the right moves keeping Notre Dame up as one of the teams at the very top of the college soccer pyramid. It actually took a while for the Irish to climb the proverbial college soccer ladder, but they would star in 1994, reaching the national title game in just their second Big Dance appearance. That’d result in a real lesson being doled out by their opponents, North Carolina, who beat the Irish, 5-0. There’d be no mistake the next season though as Chris Petrucelli led the Irish to the national title in a three overtime thriller against Portland.
Though Notre Dame would rule over the Big East with an iron fist for the next three seasons, they’d see diminishing results in the NCAA Tournament, culminating with a loss in the Elite Eight in 1998. The bombshell came after the 1998 season when Petrucelli followed the money down to Austin, taking the Texas job to try and breathe life into another slumbering giant.
His replacement was Waldrum, a coach who had had modest success at Tulsa before three excellent seasons at Baylor. While Notre Dame still did quite well in the Big East under their new boss, success in the NCAA Tournament still eluded them. The Irish started to really stutter in the Big Dance at the beginning of the new millennium. There were upset losses in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2001 and 2003 to Cincinnati and Michigan respectively, likely leaving some to wonder if the Irish would ever get back to the top of the mountain.
As doubts began to creep in, Notre Dame and Waldrum answered the critics, rolling to the 2004 national title with victory over UCLA after penalties in the title game. The title sealed Waldrum and Notre Dame’s place at the peak of the college soccer landscape and had fans hungry for more. Waldrum would be so close to his second title and the program’s third over the next five seasons. From 2006-2009, the Irish logged a couple of runner-up finishes along with two semi-final defeats.
The Irish came good in 2010 though, despite adversity at many turns, including missing key midfielder Courtney Barg for much of the year and an infamous Big East Tournament quarterfinal defeat at home to UConn, that broke many long standing streaks but also set the stage for the club to come roaring back over the next month.
2011 would begin with a solid win over a Wisconsin team thought to be Big Ten contenders, but all eyes were on Chapel Hill the following week for the Irish’s match against a North Carolina side that they had brutalized on the same pitch in the NCAA Tournament a season ago. Favorites on paper, Notre Dame would rue not making the most of their chances and fell in extra time, 2-1. A warning sign of things to come would arrive a few days later as the Irish limped to an ineffectual 3-1 loss to a hungry Duke side.
Back at home, the club logged two easy wins before another road trip that would provide a real test of the Irish’s title credentials. In a thriller that was delayed by lightning and that finished very late on the East Coast, the Irish would be undone by ten magical minutes from Stanford after having taken a sixty-seventh minute lead. After that 2-1 defeat, Notre Dame would come back to draw at Santa Clara a few days later to salvage something out of the road trip. Little did they know at the time that that weekend was to be a part of the club’s worst stretch in years in which they would win just one of six matches.
Losses to Louisville and Marquette wouldn’t look bad at the end of the season, but a draw at South Florida was an ugly blemish on the record. It was hard to notice coming down the stretch in the league that the Irish were flirting with the NCAA Tournament bubble and weren’t accruing quality wins. Irish fans could only tear their hair out as they dropped more points against Rutgers before blowing a chance for a quality win in a sloppy 3-2 loss to Georgetown. The club had finished fifth in the league, shocking for a program of such a winning history, but the real talking point was how some felt that the club would miss the NCAA Tournament if they didn’t beat Marquette in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals.
In a tense match, the Irish would score early in Milwaukee and hang on for the 1-0 win that helped but didn’t entirely cure their bubble woes. All doubt could’ve been erased with a win in the semi-finals against Louisville, but the club slipped again, losing to the Cardinals by a single goal for the second time in 2011. In the unfamiliar spot of sweating over their NCAA Tournament fate, Notre Dame must have breathed a sigh of relief of hearing their name called but were not given an easy match by any means, squaring off against an in-form Illinois side that had just won the Big Ten Tournament.
On a blustery day in Champaign, Notre Dame’s title reign ended with not a bang but a whimper, as the club were second best in less than ideal conditions. The Illini throttled the Irish attack and made an early second half goal stand up for a 1-0 win. In many respects, it was an unfathomable failure for Notre Dame’s storied program. There were no trophies to brandish, and the club had failed to win a match in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993. As winter descended on South Bend, no end of hard questions emerged about what had just transpired with no easy answers emerging in kind.
In many respects, it was the end of an era for the Irish, as so many from that 2010 title winning team have now departed. Up front, the club will have to do without the goals of Melissa Henderson, destined to go down as one of the best ever to have played in South Bend. It was obviously going to be hard to top seventeen goals and eleven assists as a junior, but Henderson did so, with eighteen strikes as a senior. While there was some padding with hat tricks against makeweights Indiana and Cincinnati and four against woeful DePaul, Henderson also scored against Stanford, Santa Clara, Marquette, and Georgetown, though she’ll soon want to forget an effort without a single shot against Illinois in the NCAA Tournament.
Also gone is Jessica Schuveiller, the club’s heart and soul last season who deputized at both defender and in midfield and made things happen at both ends of the pitch for the Irish. Star crossed midfielder Courtney Barg also departs after two injury stricken years to end her career. When on her game, Barg was one of the nation’s top defensive midfielders, and her absence at times really hurt Notre Dame. When you factor in Kecia Morway’s transfer to Colorado College and 2010 College Cup final goal scorer Adriana Leon having left the program, you realize that six of the twelve players with eleven or more starts from last season have gone. Though the Irish bring in a star studded recruiting class, there are still only three seniors on the club, and you get the sense that there might be some severe growing pains in South Bend as Waldrum tries to mold a consistent contender.
With the recruitment of two highly touted goalkeeping prospects going into 2011, it appeared that senior Maddie Fox’s grip on the starting job in between the posts was going to be tenuous at best. Fox came into her junior year having been used in mop-up duty for her first two seasons behind Nikki Weiss, having not even played a full ninety minutes in her collegiate career. It didn’t look good initially for the veteran, who started the club’s opener but then played just forty-five minutes over the next five matches in lieu of rookie Sarah Voigt. With the club’s defense leaking though, Fox would get the start against Santa Clara and never looked back, starting the rest of the way for the club in their ill-fated season. Praised for her reflexes and command of the penalty area, Fox enters her senior year as the slight favorite for the starting job but has many rivals to fend off this season.
Voigt entered South Bend as a tremendously touted keeper, having been a U18 international and was expected by many to wrest the starting job away immediately. While Voigt did start five of the club’s first six matches, she failed to win the vote of confidence from the coaches to see out the year as the club’s starter, playing only in mop-up duty after early September. Voigt still has plenty of potential and is excellent with the ball at her feet, but last season showed she still needs time to develop and may be more fit for the backup role for another season.
Classmate Jennifer Jasper entered Notre Dame as a more raw product but nonetheless one that still had some promise. Jasper has a bull in a China shop mentality but was still third on the depth chart last season, seeing mop-up duty in just one game. The club adds true freshmen Elyse Hight and Naomi Willett to a crowded mix of keepers this season, though neither come in as accomplished as Voigt or Jasper did last season, and both are candidates for redshirts as rookies. Much depends on Fox’s development if she gets the starting nod. She probably won’t have to stand on her head, but the upheaval in the backline could make life uncomfortable at times this season.
In no uncertain terms, this group gets gutted by losses this season, with the loss of two full-time starters and of group leader Jessica Schuveiller, who played the second half of the season in midfield to spark the offense. The steely center-back was a captain for three years in South Bend, no small feat considering the prestige of the program, as evidenced by the fact that she’s the only one in the history of said program to accomplish it.
A big-game player who fought through an MCL sprain during the club’s NCAA Tournament run in 2010, she in many ways dragged the club up by its bootstraps last season, scoring six goals in her advanced midfield role later on in the year, including one in four straight games in a critical stretch for Notre Dame in Big East play. Her loss is incalculable to the club, and replacing that leadership isn’t going to happen overnight or probably over the course of a single season.
Making matters worse for Notre Dame is the loss of her center-back partner for the first half of the season, Molly Campbell. Campbell had been a utility player for much of her first three seasons with the Irish, playing literally everywhere on the field before settling into a center-back role before the 2010 NCAA Tournament. A calm, fit presence in the center of defense, Campbell stayed put there last season and made the most of the newfound stability, starting all but one game for the Irish and even adding three assists to the cause.
The unexpected transfer of starting left-back Kecia Morway to Colorado College only exacerbates the problems in South Bend this season. A surprisingly integral part of the Irish’s backline during the club’s title run in 2010, Morway continued to be a mainstay on the defense, starting all but one game for the club as a sophomore. In a season when Notre Dame is craving continuity, seeing her head for the exit has to be a nightmare for the Irish faithful. Depth-wise, the club also loses senior Ellen Bartindale, who saw nine games of action in her final year with the club.
There is some starting experience returning for the Irish, but it probably isn’t enough for Waldrum’s liking. The veteran leadership will likely be coming from one of the club’s few seniors, Jazmin Hall. A physical full-back who has had to fight through injuries so often in her career, the newly minted U23 international stayed healthy last season, starting all but one game for the Irish. Hall also delivers a fine ball from out wide, so crucial in Notre Dame’s 4-3-3 system. Hall almost has to stay healthy this season though, because the defense around her is so very young.
One of the likely starters this season ended up finishing last season in the starting lineup, enduring a trial by fire for the Irish. It hardly fazed Sammy Scofield though, as the sophomore had already shown her credentials with the Chicago Red Stars in WPSL action. A physical center-back who’s great in the air, Scofield drew comparisons to Irish great Carrie Dew coming in and will look to fulfill some of that promise this season after twelve starts as a rookie. Her poise will be key with another youngster likely to partner her in central defense.
One option is classmate Taylor Schneider, a U20 international who can run for days and who started a handful of games for the club last year before settling into more of a general reserve role. Schneider’s also a capable defensive midfielder and could be used there if the defense sorts itself out for Notre Dame.
A trio of rookies are likely to make their names heard for the Irish this season as well. Towering defender Katie Naughton is a U18 international and former NSCAA Youth All-American for the Sockers FC club. Praised by Waldrum for her “bite”, Naughton brings some much needed size to the center of the defense and could play an immediate factor in the club’s defense. Fellow rookie Brittany Von Rueden ticks many of the same buttons, being a sizable option at 5’11” while also coming in as a U18 international and NSCAA Youth All-American for FC Milwaukee, who she also excelled in ECNL competition with. Von Rueden brings an extra edge of versatility with her though, being able to play anywhere on the backline or even as a center midfielder. The Mequon native also strikes a ball well and should find minutes somewhere for the Irish this year.
Finally, the club adds left-back Stephanie Campo to the mix from the powerhouse PDA club in New Jersey. A former U15 international, Campo is a big, powerful option out wide and is unafraid to rumble up the flanks to add the attack with crosses from in deep. There can be no denying the amount of raw talent at Waldrum’s disposal in defense this season. But you also can’t deny the youth of the group, with Hall the likely only upperclassman to take post in defense this season. That could lead to some brilliant displays but also some inconsistency that could prove costly as the backline sorts through teething issues with so much youth.
The situation is a little better in midfield for the Irish, but Waldrum still has to replace Schuveiller, who played the second half of the season in midfield, and the outstanding Barg. More of an Andrea Pirlo type than a pure destroyer, Barg was excellent at controlling the tempo of a match and pulling the strings from midfield. Injuries took a toll on Barg later in her career though. She missed most of the first half of 2010 with a hip injury and then was injured again last season, missing a big chunk of the league season for the club. Though those injury issues kept her from truly reaching her peak, she was still an invaluable member of the Irish and won’t be replaced easily. Also gone is rocket legged senior Brynn Gerstle, who saw action in thirteen games last season and tallied a pair of goals for the club in a reserve role.
The leader of this group is junior Mandy Laddish, also without question the Irish’s best player going into 2012. Laddish started every game as a rookie during the club’s title run and didn’t let up last season, with her creativity on the ball and a fierce shot from range among her best qualities. Though she’s filled a defensive midfield role in the past, Laddish most likely will be used in an attacking midfield role this season given some of the club’s many questions on offense. Laddish has shown a great ability to cause defenses problems with her 1v1 skills and racked up seven assists last season as she made things happen in midfield.
Laddish is really the one player of proven quality at the top level returning for the Irish this season…it’s just that she’ll be returning a month into the season in all likelihood. As a key member of the U20 World Cup squad in all probability, Laddish will be hoping to spur the U.S. onto a title, but the international duty could put a severe crimp in the club’s midfield to begin the season.
With Laddish busy, the glue that holds the midfield together is likely classmate Elizabeth Tucker. A little overlooked behind Laddish during the first few years of her career, Tucker has nonetheless been impressive with her energy and non-stop motor as an underclassman for the Irish. Tucker turned out to be an offensive sensation as a rookie, scoring nine times, including five game winners. The goals didn’t come so easily last season though, with just one strike to her name, though she did add five assists, with four coming in league play. Even if she isn’t scoring though, Tucker’s workrate makes her an unshakable member of the team’s starting unit, and what’s scary is that the junior has as much upside as anyone on the team and could still turn into an All-American calibre player.
A seeming lack of proven depth means that sophomore Karin Simonian could be in line for a much bigger role this season after mainly featuring as a reserve last year. At a spritely 5’2″, Simonian may look unimposing, but the sophomore isn’t afraid to rough the opposition up, though she generally is more lauded for her pace and creativity. Offering a little more flair than some of her midfield counterparts, it might be Simonian’s college experience that’s most valuable as Waldrum searches to fill some holes in the middle of the park this season.
With the club looking rather thin on depth, it might mean some major early minutes for rookie Glory Williams, one of the best midfielders in the country from this year’s freshmen. A big playmaker who Waldrum has compared to past Irish great Jill Krivacek, Williams may be counted on early to open up some opportunities for a very young frontline with her creativity, vision, and passing ability. If at 100%, this group looks like Notre Dame’s strongest on paper with Laddish and Tucker two of the club’s best players. But depth on the whole looks a bit wanting, and Waldrum is probably going to have to mix and match some players from other units to get the right balance, especially without Laddish for the first month of the season.
For the first time in what seems like ages, there’s uncertainty in front of goal for the Irish without the indomitable Henderson in their ranks. The Texan piled up the goals in her four seasons with the club, and looks to be in the mix for a future spot with the full USWNT. Though there were some blips along the way in 2011, including a stretch of one goal in six games, Henderson was a colossus down the stretch, scoring in the club’s final three regular season games and then the only goal in the Big East Tournament game against Marquette, where a loss would’ve likely meant the end of the Irish’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
The club loses more than Henderson this season though. The loss of sophomore Adriana Leon hurts badly, with the Canadian departing unexpectedly after a solid second season in South Bend. Forever to be remembered as the scorer of the goal that topped Stanford in 2010’s national title game, Leon had an up and down season last year. It was mostly up early, with four goals in the club’s first five games. It went down in a hurry though, with just two the rest of the way, though Leon did turn into a decent provider, with four assists in the league. She would’ve likely missed the first month of the season at the U20 World Cup, but her proven scoring ability being gone is another blow to the club. Reserves Ellen Jantsch and Lindsay Brown also depart, leaving this yet another unit short on returning depth coming into 2012.
The great young hope for the Irish last year was Lauren Bohaboy, one of the top incoming recruits in the nation in 2011 and a player whose hype was rising exponentially after various highlight reels and media features hit the internet. Praised heavily for her positioning and poaching instincts by Waldrum coming into South Bend, Bohaboy got off to a bit of a slow start for the club, going without a goal in her first eight games and only logging four shots on goal in that span.
A strike against Cincinnati broke the ice though, and Bohaboy scored six in six in the middle of Big East play. She’d cool back off later in the year though, going her final seven without a goal and her final six without a shot on goal. Perhaps Bohaboy was a bit more raw than anticipated coming into the college ranks, but there still remains a great deal of potential to be brought out by Waldrum and his staff. The club may be depending heavily on her goals this season though, which could be a bit worrisome if she can’t iron some of the wrinkles out of her game.
Junior Rebecca Twining is really the only other established out and out forward returning that has played minutes of consequence. Twining grew into more minutes as a sophomore, even starting six matches, but a strike rate of one goal last season wasn’t impressive, with the Houston native likely needing to take another big step forward to be a consistent starter for the Irish.
As is the case with just about every other unit for Notre Dame, there are highly touted freshmen galore in waiting. Waldrum will likely have to wait a while for what many see as this class’ crown jewel, New York native Cari Roccaro, who will likely be playing for the U.S. U20 team in the U20 World Cup in August. Compared to former Irish great Melissa “Tank” Tancredi, Roccaro is a player of great versatility, able to play just about anywhere on the pitch for the Albertson Fury club team and the U.S. youth teams. Early indications are that Roccaro’s size and strength will be put to use up front for the Irish though, and if she’s able to acclimate to the college game quickly, she could be one of the nation’s top freshmen this year.
The club will also be looking for a big contribution right off the bat from Crystal Thomas. A creative and hard working forward, Thomas doesn’t possess anywhere near the size of some of Notre Dame’s other forwards but could bring a more creative bent to the Irish frontline. A member of the USYS National Championship Best XI in 2011 with Sockers FC, Thomas is another likely to see big minutes early for the club. Finally, U18 international Anna Maria Gilbertson joins up from California. Touted as a creative, “slasher-type” by Waldrum, the Davis product loves to run at opponents and is another big forward for the Irish to utilize in attack.
The likes of Tucker, Laddish, and Simonian could also feature up top, though considering the dearth of numbers in midfield, they could be too valuable there to shift up the pitch. The raw talent in this unit is off the charts, but losing Roccaro for a month right off the bat hurts. With so many young players, it might also take some time for an understanding on the pitch to develop between the group, meaning this could be an explosive but inconsistent unit in 2012.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Notre Dame will want to get as far away as possible from their doomed 2011 season. To that effect though, this is almost an entirely different team from both last year’s club and the 2010 title winning side. Just Laddish and Tucker remain from the starting core of that 2010 team, and there is youth all over the place for Waldrum going into 2012. Questions too. While Fox is probably now a bit entrenched in goal, it’s almost all change in front of her this year. Hall will have to provide the senior leadership on a very young frontline, while Waldrum will be hoping to craft something resembling a coherent and dangerous offense out of a lot of talented freshmen and sophomores up front. When Laddish gets back, the midfield could be a standout group in both league and in the DI ranks overall, but experienced depth, like at many other positions, is hardly the best.
It’s hard to get past this Notre Dame team giving off a vibe like last year’s UCLA club, though even that Bruins side had more experience in the tank. Despite the worries about youth and getting such a side to gel quickly, it’s not like the Big East is rife with predators this season. Marquette and Louisville look like the Irish’s main title rivals, and with Notre Dame getting the latter at home and missing the former in the regular season, the league could still be right there for the taking.
At the very least, this club should have an easier time of making it into the NCAA Tournament after last year’s close shave. Expecting more progress in the competition itself with such a youthful team is pushing it though, and the Irish may struggle to escape the second weekend of the tournament if they run up against more composed and experienced opposition.