Oct. 15, 2015
By Pete LaFleur
When pressed to comment on his 2014 team’s early-season struggles, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers spelled out R-E-L-A-X.
Two decades earlier, the 1995 University of Notre Dame women’s soccer team similarly latched onto a five-letter word – FOCUS – that epitomized their pivotal midseason recommitment.
The laser-focused Irish ended up hoisting the 1995 NCAA championship trophy. They handed powerhouse North Carolina its first shutout loss since 1985, avenging a lopsided defeat suffered in the 1994 title game and denying the Tar Heels a 10th straight title.
But that thriller was only a semifinal. Notre Dame ultimately outlasted Portland in a three-overtime affair for the program’s first national championship.
Those national champions are back on campus this weekend, celebrating their 20th anniversary and being honored during the Notre Dame-USC football game.
The 1995 championship season launched a new era for Notre Dame, which has emerged as one of the nation’s leading all-around athletic departments – including more NCAA women’s soccer titles, in 2004 and 2010 (the three titles rank second behind only UNC).
Fourteen months before the 1995 title, Notre Dame played a game with lasting impact. That fateful day in St. Louis saw the Irish go toe-to-toe with North Carolina, a scoreless tie that ended what remains the longest winning streak (92) in Division I sports history.
That fiercely contested draw lit the fuse to what ultimately became women’s soccer’s greatest rivalry.
“North Carolina was not as unbeatable as most thought. Teams were just afraid of them,” says Kate Fisher Murray, a 1995 starting outside back. “That tie gave us great confidence moving forward.”
Midfielder Cindy Daws had been controlling the flow of games since she started playing as a five-year-old. Equally adept at battling in the air and with the ball at her feet, Daws went on to earn the 1996 Hermann Trophy player of the year and 1996-97 Honda Broderick Cup, recognizing the nation’s most outstanding collegiate female athlete.
Her co-captain Jen Renola was named the National Soccer Coaches Association’s 1996 player of the year. The standout goalkeeper further was honored as the CoSIDA Academic All-American of the Year for fall and winter women’s sports.
“Jen was an amazing leader and backbone of our team, something you rarely see from the goalkeeper position,” Daws says without hesitation. “She was like an old soul, making personal connections with everyone.”
Renola became the first Notre Dame student-athlete to receive the prestigious NCAA Top VIII Award, recognizing excellence in athletics, academics and leadership.
“Notre Dame women’s soccer changed the day Renola and Daws arrived. I’ve never encountered stronger leaders,” says Chris Petrucelli, head coach of the Irish from 1990-98, who later coached at Texas and now serves as the head coach at SMU.
“Jen and Cindy are among the most competitive ever to play college soccer. They were all about winning and pushed their teams to a new level. Without them, we’re telling a much different story.”
Two from the 1995 squad later enjoyed lengthy careers with the U.S. National Team: relentlessly speedy junior defender Kate Sobrero and freshman Shannon Boxx, who became the world’s pre-eminent defensive midfielder.
Sobrero’s classmate, flank midfielder Holly Manthei, had been the youngest on Team USA at the 1995 World Cup. Notre Dame’s first four-year All-American, the free-spirited Manthei used raw speed, slashing runs and precision passes to establish still-standing NCAA records for assists in a season (44, in ’96) and career (129).
“Holly’s personality came to life on and off the field,” remembers Daws. “She possessed that synergy to connect with teammates in so many ways.”
“Teams fail to score on corner kicks mostly due to inconsistent service,” adds Petrucelli. “We would design all sorts of corner-kick plays, knowing Holly could serve it anywhere we wanted.”
Notre Dame’s back line included Sobrero flanked by Cincinnati natives Julie Vogel (left) and Fisher (right), with senior sweeper Ashley Scharff behind them. The midfield featured Manthei on the left, Daws centrally and Boxx on the right. Ragen Coyne, the program’s first All-American in 1992, often started as an attacking midfielder.
Four forwards shared most of the minutes: seniors Michelle McCarthy and Rosella Guerrero (a 1994 All-American), freshman Monica Gerardo and local South Bend and Adams High School product Amy VanLaecke, a junior who produced several big-game goals.
The program sprung from humble beginnings, with the inaugural 1988 roster featuring soccer club members and players from the discontinued field hockey program. Margaret Jarc McLaughlin, wife of current Notre Dame volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin, played on those early teams, returning as an assistant coach in 1995 and ’96, alongside veteran assistant Carla Chin.
“In 1995, we were so explosive with many interchangeable weapons,” says McLaughlin. “Few teams could stop what we were doing. When they did, they rarely could get the ball to their forwards, making us even more attack-oriented.”
Notre Dame’s 2-2-2 midseason slump included a tie at unranked Cincinnati; an uninspired 2-1 win at Ohio State; and losses against Connecticut (5-4) and North Carolina (2-0, in Houston). The Irish then won 2-0 at lowly Villanova, but the effort was unacceptable. Petrucelli even pulled the starters for a large portion of that game.
“Getting benched was a gut-check, but well-deserved,” admits Daws. “As we watched, the reserves inspired the starters. We gained newfound respect for their drive.”
Later on that Fall Break roadtrip, the coaches led a course-correcting team meeting. The transformation was stunning: a 10-0 dismantling of Georgetown in the nation’s capital.
“One by one, after the meeting, we pledged that our goal was to win it all,” says Fisher. “Our battle cry became FOCUS and we played amazing soccer. In huddles, we would yell ‘Irish’ but silently say ‘Focus.’ Our championship rings have that inscription: FOCUS.”
Petrucelli had been seeing his team “get so carried away trying to score that we forgot there was another part of the game.” But the Irish flipped the script, allowing only three goals over the final 11 games, none in the postseason.
“When players take things for granted and feel entitled, that’s when programs get off track,” says Gerardo. “Chris made sure we appreciated everything and never stopped working. That builds pride.
“He motivated us by being honest and straightforward. He knew how far he could push to get the most out of each individual.”
The turnaround likely would not have happened without Daws. The junior almost elected to sit out the season: “A screw in my foot had not fully heeled. I honestly wanted to quit,” confides Daws.
“I was dealing with so much pain. I was out of shape. My touch was off, my confidence shaken. I sat out some early games and contemplated taking the year off. But I knew we could win the championship. I decided to work through the pain.”
Notre Dame avenged its regular-season loss (5-4) to Connecticut by beating the Huskies 1-0 in the BIG EAST final. The teams would meet again in the NCAA Championship quarterfinal as the Irish prevailed again 2-0 behind goals from Vogel and VanLaecke. Earlier, Boxx’s hat trick paced a 5-0 win over Wisconsin.
The seedings foretold an ND-UNC rematch, this time in the semifinals … and at Fetzer Field, home of the Tar Heels. The 12-time NCAA champions had suffered only one home loss – ever – and had never lost an NCAA tournament home game.
The vaunted Tar Heels amazingly had lost only twice since 1985.
In the mid-1990s, it was extremely rare for Notre Dame teams to be decked out in special green jerseys. Cue the surprising scene at the semifinal pregame meal: a green jersey draped across each player’s chair. “We saw those jerseys and went crazy,” says Fisher. “It was the push we needed. We were going to make history.”
The huge gathering of 7,212 represented the largest crowd ever to watch a collegiate women’s soccer game.
In the previous two meetings between the two teams, Notre Dame’s defense had been exposed in losses to the Tar Heels. This time, the defense came to play. North Carolina totaled only four shots on goal and Renola saved them all – only the second time since 1989 that UNC had been shut out. The other time? That 0-0 tie versus the Irish in 1994.
“UNC had better individual talent, but we were better from a team standpoint,” Boxx notes. “We played with nothing to lose and fought for each other. Those are my favorite kind of teams.”
A fortuitous first-half bounce delivered the only goal. UNC’s Cindy Parlow headed out an Irish free kick but the opposing Cindy (Daws) countered with her own header. Parlow’s ensuing second header resulted in a dreaded own-goal.
“I was trying to head it deep, put the ‘keeper in a dangerous position,” Daws says. “Parlow just happened to stick her head in the way.”
UNC coach Anson Dorrance dismissed talk of a lucky goal, noting that it was the “result of [Notre Dame] getting people forward.”
Knowing their job was far from done, the team “barely celebrated” after the win, Daws remembers.
The matchup against Portland featured a game within the game: Sobrero shutting down future U.S national teammate Shannon MacMillan, college soccer’s player of the year. The finale extended to 35 minutes of overtime, as decisive penalty-kick shootouts were not instituted until 1996. Hypothetically, they could have played all night.
McCarthy’s quickness and precision forced the action. She was fouled near the top of the penalty box, with Daws then rushing forward to strike the direct free kick, 25 yards out. With the mentally and physically drained Pilots still adjusting their wall, Daws stunningly quick-kicked a low driven ball inside the far-right post.
“I only realized I had scored when 24 people were on top of me,” a giddy Daws told the postgame media.
Several stars from 1995 later ended their careers with the same realization: winning a national championship is no easy task.
Notre Dame’s clinical five-year run from 1994-98 included racking up 103 more victories than defeats (112-9-7). But the 1996 team lost a heartbreaking 1-0 title game versus UNC. The unbeaten 1997 team – one of the most dominant in NCAA history (135-8 scoring margin) – was tripped up by UConn in the semifinals. The 1998 season ended in the quarterfinals against Portland.
The 1995 season had been a revelation: “We found out how much character our team had. Instead of packing it in, we fought back. We improved more than any team I’ve ever coached,” Petrucelli says.
“Notre Dame student-athletes are bright and self-sufficient. They play for their university and each other with passion I’ve not seen anywhere else. Their university embraces them with tough love and massive support. The student body is passionate about athletics. It’s a university-wide commitment to athletic success that is unmatched.”
For Daws, the midseason wakeup call was when “our mentality became undeniable. We started the year in the dark, but by midseason there was nothing but a path of light shining towards the national championship.”
On the evening of Dec. 3, 1995, as Notre Dame’s team plane neared South Bend, a familiar beacon was calling them home: the famed Golden Dome. But the team’s attention soon was redirected to another light in the sky, on the northeast edge of campus.
The No. 1 sign atop the Grace Hall tower had been lit, an honor previously reserved for the Notre Dame football program. Those brightly burning bulbs symbolized the light at the end of the championship journey.
“Peering out from the plane, we knew the University and the student body had embraced our team,” Petrucelli says with great pride. “The Notre Dame family was proud of our players.
“And we were proud to be Notre Dame.”