Old habits die hard.
Not that the Notre Dame women’s soccer team isn’t trying.
North Carolina had been in the habit of winning the NCAA championship, something it has done 13 times in 15 NCAA championships since 1982. The Irish have tried to break this habit, defeating the Tar Heels 1-0 in the 1995 NCAA semifinals on their way to the 1995 NCAA title. Notre Dame even beat North Carolina again 2-1 in overtime on Oct. 4, 1996, becoming the first collegiate team ever to beat the Tar Heels in consecutive games and joining Connecticut as the only teams ever to defeat North Carolina more than once.
But North Carolina returned to its old ways, this time avenging the two prior defeats with a 1-0 overtime win in 1996 NCAA finals as the top-ranked Irish fell short in their bid to repeat as NCAA champs.
The 1996 season began for the Irish with a No. 2 ranking and the bull’s-eye of being the defending national champions. The loss of all-time leading scorer Michelle McCarthy and sweeper Ashley Scharff left head coach Chris Petrucelli the task of having to reload for the 1996 season.
Petrucelli, the only coach to win national coach-of-the-year honors in two consecutive years in 1994 and 1995, simply hauled in the country’s best freshman class to make up for losses from the 1995 NCAA championship team. Defender Jen Grubb, midfielder Kara Brown and forwards Jenny Heft and Jenny Streiffer comprised this group.
Heading into the season Petrucelli felt confident his team was poised to equal the accomplishments of the 1995 team and expressed concern with just one area of his team.
“One of our only concerns will be with our chemistry. It will be interesting because we have a number of freshmen who will come in and start and others that will play right away. You don’t know how the chemistry part of the team develops until late in the season.”
However, the Irish did not have to wait long to realize that chemistry would not be an obstacle for this team. Notre Dame opened its 1996 season on the road in New England with a 14-0 win over Providence and a 6-0 blanking of Boston College. The Irish showed their head coach early on that there would be few problems, certainly not chemistry, that would hinder this team.
Notre Dame opened its home season at Alumni Field against its first ranked opponent of the season against regional foe Wisconsin and came away with a 3-1 victory in its first major test of the season.
After wins over Michigan State, Indiana and St. John’s, the Irish traveled to Connecticut for a BIG EAST showdown against the fourth-ranked Huskies. The Notre Dame-Connecticut match-up has quickly developed into one of the biggest rivalries for the Irish since their entrance into the BIG EAST Conference. In the fourth meeting between the two schools in a year, Monica Gerardo scored the game-winning goal three minutes into the second half to break a 1-1 tie to put the Irish in command of the BIG EAST race.
Shutout wins over Marquette and Georgetown preceded the showdown between No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Notre Dame as the two undefeated teams met for the first time since Notre Dame’s 1-0 win in the 1995 NCAA semifinals. The Tar Heels struck first, scoring at the 25:03 mark to take a short-lived 1-0 lead. Streiffer knotted the game just eight minutes later when she headed in a 30-yard feed from Shannon Boxx.
The Irish and Tar Heels would battle through a scoreless second half to send the game into overtime at 1-1 before Streiffer would strike again just three minutes into the first overtime period when she beat the North Carolina goalkeeper to a near perfect service from Cindy Daws and flicked the ball past the extended goalkeeper for the game-winning goal and the validation of the team’s 1995 NCAA championship.
“I would like to say that the game didn’t mean a lot to us but it did,” said Streiffer, the only Notre Dame player to score against North Carolina.
At a perfect 11-0-0 and just having beaten the No. 1 team in the country for the second time in as many meetings, the Irish came back the next day and shrugged off a slow start to beat the host Duke Blue Devils 2-0 and leave North Carolina 12-0-0 and as the top-ranked team in the country.
Notre Dame’s tough schedule did not allow the Irish any time to savor its success. Just two days after returning from North Carolina, Notre Dame was on its way to California to face its next big test at Santa Clara against Stanford and the host Broncos.
Against No. 18 Stanford, the Irish used a 24-9 advantage in shots to come away with a 4-0 victory at Buck Shaw Stadium at Santa Clara, which would be the first of two trips for the Irish to the site of the NCAA semifinals and finals.
The win over the Cardinal put the Irish at 13-0-0, riding a year-old winning streak of 24 games and road winning streak of 14 games. In its last big test of the regular season, the Irish came out flat against an inspired Santa Clara team in front of a record crowd of 3,714 fans. The Broncos, it seemed, were a step faster to nearly every ball and dismantled the Irish 3-1.
Despite the loss, Notre Dame held on to its No. 1 ranking and closed out the regular season with five straight home games, winning all five by a combined score of 44-1.
The Irish won their first BIG EAST regular season title with a perfect 9-0-0 mark in the conference and earned the top seed for the BIG EAST championships, held at Alumni Field. Notre Dame cruised into the BIG EAST finals with a 7-0 win over Villanova which saw goalkeepers Jen Renola and LaKeysia Beene play in the field to keep the starters fresh for the final the next day. The two goalkeepers did more than just serve as bodies in the field as each scored a goal in the win, the first career goals for the senior Renola and the freshman Beene.
For the second consecutive year, Notre Dame and Connecticut battled for the BIG EAST title in the finals and once again the Irish came away with a one-goal win. In the fifth meeting between the two teams in just two years, Notre Dame jumped out to a three-goal lead thanks to two goals by Daws.
The fourth-ranked Huskies rallied to knot the score at 3-3 before Jenny Heft tapped in a long service from Kate Sobrero to scored the game-winning goal and give the Irish their third one-goal win over Connecticut in four wins. Despite a 4-1 lead in the overall series with the Huskies, Notre Dame has managed only a 13-9 advantage in goals against Connecticut.
The second BIG EAST title gave the Irish an automatic bid into the 32-team NCAA field where they played host Big Ten champion Indiana in a rematch from earlier in the season, a 5-0 Irish win. The second game was not much closer as Notre Dame advanced to the second round with an 8-1 win.
Another rematch was in store for the Irish in the second round as Wisconsin made its second trip to Alumni Field in 1996. The game also marked the second year Notre Dame and Wisconsin met in the NCAA second round and the result was no different, as the Irish used a hat trick for a 5-0 NCAA second round, just as it did 1995. Shannon Boxx scored three goals in 1995 in the 5-0 win and Amy VanLaecke duplicated the 5-0 win a year later with her hat trick.
Standing between Notre Dame and a return to the NCAA semifinals for the third straight year was No. 13 Maryland in an NCAA third round game at Alumni Field. Standing between Notre Dame and Maryland was a rain-soaked Alumni Field, forcing the game to be played at Saint Mary’s Soccer Field. The change of venue did little to bother the Irish who were focused on another trip to the NCAA semifinals.
“Nothing fazes them,” said Petrucelli.
Notre Dame scored twice in the first 15 minutes of the contest before Maryland gained its composure and played the Irish evenly. The Terrapins did little to threaten the Irish who coasted to a 2-0 win.
Notre Dame’s opponent in the semifinal, Portland, was a familiar foe. The teams had battled it out in the NCAA finals in 1995 for two hours and five minutes before Daws ended it with her now-famous direct kick. Notre Dame also eliminated Portland in the 1994 NCAA semifinals in Portland with a 1-0 win. In 1996, the Pilots came out strong, trying not to end their season with a loss to Notre Dame for the third straight year.
After not scoring in the 1995 marathon, Portland shocked Notre Dame with a goal just 1:40 into the game. The Pilots made it 2-0 at 29:42 as the crowd began to sense an upset brewing. Portland had allowed just seven goals all season and now Notre Dame was faced with needing to score at least three to win.
“I thought we were just about ready to quit at halftime,” said Petrucelli.
A goal just a minute into the second half by Boxx cut the lead in half but boosted Notre Dame’s confidence immeasurably. In the next 15 minutes, the incredible Irish blitzed the Pilots with two more goals and, in the first 16 minutes of the second half, turned a two-goal deficit into a one-goal lead that would hold up for a 3-2 win and spot in the finals against North Carolina.
The Notre Dame-North Carolina final unfolded into yet another classic match-up between the two schools. The Tar Heels outshot the Irish 12-4 through 90 minutes but could not manage a goal past the brilliant play of Renola who nearly single-handedly sent the NCAA final into overtime for the second consecutive year and only the second time ever. North Carolina had a 6-3 advantage in shots in overtime but used the shot by Debbie Keller at 110:56 to score the game’s only goal. Keller’s goal marked the first for the Tar Heels against Notre Dame in 202 minutes of NCAA tournament play dating back to the 1994 final.
“While 1996 didn’t necessarily end the way we wanted, it was a great year for us,” said Petrucelli. “We were certainly one of the best teams and the confidence from being aware of this will carry over to 1997.”