Oct. 18, 2012

By Pete LaFleur

The University of Notre Dame over the years has produced athletic programs that rank among the best in the nation, ranging from the highly-visible football program to the school’s lower-profile (yet internationally known) fencing tradition. Add to that mix women’s soccer, which – following recent national titles in 2004 and 2010 (plus an initial championship in ’95) – steadily has emerged as one of Notre Dame’s most visible and consistently elite programs.

With 2012 serving as the 25th varsity season for Notre Dame women’s soccer, the silver anniversary presents a fitting time to look back at a program created and maintained by Chris Petrucelli (1990-98) and Randy Waldrum (1999-present), both on the short list of top coaches in the history of collegiate women’s soccer.

Two dates – Oct. 2, 1994, and Dec. 31, 1998 – stand out as pivotal moments in the evolution of Notre Dame women’s soccer, for distinctly different reasons. Neither date was related to a Notre Dame victory, but both are red-letter days in the history of the program.

That early-October Sunday afternoon in 1994 found the relatively young Notre Dame program taking on a powerhouse North Carolina team that had at the time won 11 of the 12 NCAA women’s soccer championships. The historic game was played in the soccer hotbed of St. Louis, at current Busch Soccer Park, and the Irish went toe to toe with the legendary Tar Heel program. After 100 minutes of play, the resulting scoreless tie had ended the 92-game North Carolina winning streak that still ranks as the longest by any Division I sports team.

Although neither team won that day, the fierce battle lit a fuse to a Notre Dame-North Carolina women’s soccer rivalry. The tie also proved to be a huge confidence boost for the Irish. Some 14 months later, Notre Dame halted North Carolina’s quest for a 10th straight NCAA title with a 1-0 win in their 1995 semifinal (at North Carolina’s Fetzer Field) – taking the rivalry to another level and setting off layers of excellence for the Irish program over the ensuing 17 seasons.

Three years later, on New Year’s Eve following the 1998 season, a second program-changing day arrived when the University of Texas announced the hiring of Petrucelli to lead the Longhorns’ young, but promising, women’s soccer program. Texas had narrowed its top choices to Petrucelli and an up-and-coming native son, Waldrum, then the coach at nearby Baylor.

The Texas opportunity included top-line facilities, a fertile, statewide recruiting base, and various benefits that go with being at one of the nation’s top all-around athletic departments. But Petrucelli’s decision to accept the Texas position stunned many … including Waldrum.

“Being a Texas boy, my dream job was to coach at Texas,” says Waldrum. “I didn’t think there was any way Chris was going to leave Notre Dame and naturally was extremely disappointed when he accepted the Texas job. But a few days later, Notre Dame called me to interview.

“Funny how things change, but it has panned out to be the best decision of my life.”

The program’s bookended success during the Petrucelli and Waldrum eras represents one of the best back-to-back coaching duos in NCAA sports history. During their 21 combined seasons (prior to 2012), Notre Dame has reached the College Cup semifinals 11 times, winning the three NCAA titles while finishing runner-up five other times (’94, ’96, ’99, ’06, ’08).

By most measures, Notre Dame women’s soccer ranks second behind only North Carolina (coached in its entirety by Anson Dorrance) when it comes to sustained excellence. North Carolina (20), Notre Dame (three) and Portland (two) are the only women’s soccer programs with multiple national titles while Irish players have combined to win the Hermann Trophy (soccer’s equivalent of the Heisman) four times – midfielders Cindy Daws (’96) and Anne Makinen (’00) along with forward Kerri Hanks, a rare two-time recipient (’06, ’08).

Daws also received the prestigious Honda Broderick Cup (for 1996-97) as the nation’s most outstanding female athlete in any Division I sport. Goalkeeper Jen Renola – who joined Daws in receiving a major 1996 national player-of-the-year award (from the coaches association) – likewise received an elite national honor, the NCAA Top VIII Award.

Notre Dame’s massive haul of 48 women’s soccer All-Americans – led by rare four-year honorees Holly Manthei, Jen Grubb, Makinen and Hanks – is matched by the program’s impressive academic record. The 3.13 women’s soccer team grade-point average ranked among the best in the Notre Dame athletics department during the 2012 spring semester, while the program’s 24 total Academic All-America honors since 1995 are the most from any women’s soccer program during that 17-year span.

Five Notre Dame players – Renola, M/F Jenny Streiffer, F/D Monica Gonzalez, midfielder Brittany Bock and three-position threat Lauren Fowlkes – have combined All-America and Academic All-America honors. Former defender Vanessa Pruzinsky and goalkeeper Erika Bohn are two of only six DI women’s soccer players ever to be three-year Academic All-Americans.

The unassuming, but brilliant, Pruzinsky fashioned an academic career the likes of which had not been seen at Notre Dame in more than three decades. The Trumbull, Conn., native kept putting up 4.0 semester GPAs despite her rigorous science-based curriculum and in 2003 became the third Notre Dame chemical engineering major (first since 1970) – we’re talking the entire student body, not only student-athletes – ever to graduate with a spotless 4.0 cumulative grade-point average.

Daws, Manthei, Hanks, Streiffer and Katie Thorlakson each fashioned historic offensive seasons and careers – in several cases putting them on par with Tar Heel legend Mia Hamm. Thorlakson joined central defender Melissa Tancredi and fellow forward Candace Chapman in forming the Canadian trio that played a lead role on the 2004 title team.

Petrucelli and Waldrum have combined for an amazing .850 winning percentage (448-69-25) spanning their 21-plus seasons at Notre Dame, with Petrucelli impressively going 175-22-10 (.870) while Waldrum is 274-47-15 (.837).

The current Notre Dame women’s soccer juggernaut sprung from humble beginnings in the late 1980s, launching as a varsity team in 1988 with a roster that featured soccer club members and former players from the discontinued field hockey program. Margaret Jarc McLaughlin, wife of current University of Washington women’s volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin, vividly recalls her first season in 1989 with the shoestring women’s soccer program.

“Our practice area was a patch of grass that the men weren’t using and it was a lucky day if we had a goal to shoot on,” says Jarc, who graduated in 1993 and returned as an assistant coach for the historic 1995-96 seasons.

“We wore hand-me-down uniforms from the men’s team and our only road games happened when the men were traveling to a school that also had a women’s team. We crammed into 23-passenger van shuttles for five-hour trips. The men’s coach at the time also coached the women’s team, when time allowed.

“It was fun and there was a lot of camaraderie with the men’s team, but it was not great soccer.”

The state of North Carolina interestingly produced two coaches – longtime friends, with great Italian names, to boot – who arrived at Notre Dame in 1990 to lead the respective soccer programs. The new Irish men’s soccer coach Mike Berticelli had been Petrucelli’s coach at North Carolina-Greensboro, with Petrucelli later coaching on his mentor’s staffs at UNCG and Old Dominion. The multi-syllabic pair transitioned to Notre Dame as an important package deal.

“The biggest influence on me and our program was Mike Berticelli. He knew soccer, he knew coaching and he knew me,” says a grateful Petrucelli.

“I spoke with Mike for hours every day about our team and about life. He had great insight on how to take a team to the next level.”

One year after Petrucelli’s departure from Notre Dame, Berticelli died suddenly on Jan. 25, 2000, of a heart attack, as the 48-year-old was preparing to drive from his family home to the soccer office. It was a stunning loss throughout the nation’s youth soccer community.

“Mike Berticelli’s death remains the most tragic moment I’ve ever dealt with, but I’m eternally grateful for the role he played in my life,” says Petrucelli.

The changing soccer culture at Notre Dame impacted both the men’s and women’s programs in the early 1990s. Petrucelli was a perfect fit for the time, with his youth and energy helping to shape a team identity that was more than ready to emerge.

Petrucelli’s time within the Joyce Center and attending various sporting events allowed him to soak up knowledge and inspiration from the likes of athletics directors Moose Krause and Dick Rosenthal, assistant athletic directors Brian Boulac and Tony Yelovich (both former Notre Dame football assistants), and an assortment of elite coaches such as Lou Holtz, Digger Phelps, Bobby Bayliss, Muffet McGraw and Kevin Corrigan.

The Notre Dame women qualified for the NCAAs in 1993, losing to eventual national runner-up George Mason, but 1993 already had produced a watershed moment due to the successful recruitment of Daws and Renola.

“The program changed the day Jen Renola and Cindy Daws showed up on campus,” says Petrucelli, currently the head women’s soccer coach at Southern Methodist. “They were great players but what defined them was that they simply were two of the most competitive ever to play college soccer.

“Winning was what they were about, and they pushed their teams to a new level. Without them, I doubt this would be the same story.”

Ensuing classes featured standouts such as flank midfielder Holly Manthei (still the NCAA career leader with 129 assists) and forward Monica Gerardo, plus two players who went on to star with the U.S. National Team at multiple World Cups and Olympic Games: speedy defender Kate (Sobrero) MarkgrafSobreroand the unheralded but bruising defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx.

Despite losing its 1994 rematch with North Carolina in the NCAA title game (5-0; 1-0 at the half), Notre Dame clearly built off the earlier scoreless tie.

“North Carolina was not as great as everyone thought, everyone was just so afraid of them,” says Kate Fisher Murray, the starting right back on the ’95 title team.

“That tie versus North Carolina truly gave our team the confidence it really needed that following season.”

Some 1995 midseason hiccups necessitated a team meeting, broached by Jarc after reading an inspirational book by NBA coaching legend Pat Riley.

“Coach gave us a couple days off, then we had that team meeting,” says Fisher. “He wanted to know what our goals were for the season? Maybe we were on a different page? The coaches wanted a national championship, but maybe we really did not care about that.

“One by one we made a pledge that our goal was to win it all that year. We were going to focus on our own personal goals to reach our team goals. Our battle cry became FOCUS and we started to play amazing soccer. Our national championship rings are inscribed with the word FOCUS.” One of Petrucelli’s final teams at Notre Dame, one that did not win a national title, clearly was his best when it comes to season-long dominance. That 1997 squad – featuring Gerardo and Streiffer among the attacking threats, a midfield including Manthei, Makinen and Boxx, a back line comprised of Sobrero, Grubb and Kelly Lindsey, and LaKeysia Beene in goal – still ranks as one of the best in college soccer history for both offense and defense, finishing with a 135-8 scoring margin for the season (which ended in an NCAA semifinal loss vs. Connecticut).

The transition to the Waldrum era was an impressive one, as his first Notre Dame team ultimately reached the 1999 NCAA final after knocking off previously unbeaten Santa Clara in the semifinals. The new Irish coach had arrived in northern Indiana with plenty of reservations, but his concerns soon were alleviated by a veteran core that fully bought in to the change – including the program’s shift from a 3-4-3 to 4-3-3 formation.

“I had a perception that Notre Dame was full of rich kids pampered all their lives,” says Waldrum. “After I arrived on campus for my interview, I realized I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

“I was so impressed with the work ethic of the team as well as the student body. They are involved in community service, they build homes every year for needy families, they have academics to maintain, and somewhere along the way they have to be college students as well. I was blown away by the quality and character of the kids that Notre Dame attracts.”

The Waldrum era at Notre Dame has featured plenty of elite recruits – players such as Chapman, Hanks, Bock, midfield playmaker Jen Buczkowski and 2010 Hermann Trophy runner-up Melissa Henderson – but also a collection of initially less-heralded players targeted by Waldrum as “perfect fits” for the Notre Dame system of play.

Two of Buczkowski’s teammates from the Chicago-based Eclipse Select club – versatile backline leader Kim Lorenzen and defensive midfielder Jill Krivacek – thrived in their system-specific roles with the Irish and were key members of the 2004 title team. Outside back Julie Scheidler, from a family overflowing with Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s alums, similarly parlayed her modest beginnings into a four-year starter role with the Irish (capped by the 2010 title season, which featured an NCAA round-of-16 win at North Carolina).

Through it all, Waldum has maintained the same basic philosophies that characterized the Petrucelli era.

“Notre Dame soccer is built on a tradition of excellence, with standards held from year-to-year that make it a top-level program,” says Buczkowski. “Coach Waldrum has created an environment where only the most competitive can survive, while also showcasing a program known for its attractive style of play.”

Petrucelli and Waldrum’s soccer lives became linked on that New Year’s Eve day back in 1998. But while one was leaving Notre Dame and the other was soon to arrive, they remain connected through their eternal appreciation for the University.

“It’s been more than 20 years since I started at Notre Dame, but there always will be something special about the place – she develops great leaders and passionate people,” says Petrucelli.

“Student-athletes at Notre Dame are different from anywhere in the country. They always are extremely bright and self-sufficient, and they buy into the love for their University like no others. They play for their university and each other with a passion I’ve not seen anywhere else. Their University embraces them with tough love and massive support, and the student body is passionate about athletics. It’s a university-wide commitment to athletic success that is unmatched.”