Oct. 22, 2004

By Pete LaFleur

One poster includes the slogan “Good to Great.” Another carries the motto “Staying in the Spotlight.” Each features a group photo, one showing the 2004 Notre Dame women’s soccer team, the other showcasing the current edition of the Irish men’s soccer squad.

And as college soccer nears postseason play, it would be hard to argue that any school in the nation currently boasts a hotter pair of soccer programs than Notre Dame. Both teams are on the brink of greatness … and both certainly are in the spotlight.

“We want to be known as a top soccer school and every success for the men and the women add to that,” says Mike Avery, in his fifth overall season as an assistant coach with the Notre Dame men’s soccer program (only women’s head coach Randy Waldrum has been at Notre Dame longer, among the coaching staffs for both teams).

“What’s most impressive with the women is how they’ve stayed on top, with a young team and that big target on their back. The men’s program here at Notre Dame is climbing that ladder. We’re just trying to keep up with the women and I think both programs are very much respected throughout the country.”

The top-ranked women (14-0-0, as of Oct. 15) had lost just once in their last 36 regular-season games (34-1-1) while the men (11-2-1) were No. 12 in the NSCAA coaches’ poll and should be in the running for the regular-season title in the rugged BIG EAST Conference. Together, they had combined for more wins (25-2-1) than any other school in Division I. Only three others – Duke (23-4), Virginia (21-3-1) and UC Santa Barbara (20-4-2) – even had reached 20-plus combined wins while Notre Dame and Virginia were the only schools with both the men’s and women’s teams in the top 12 of the Oct. 11 NSCAA coaches poll.

Both teams have been on a roll, particularly on the defensive end. The men were riding a six-game shutout streak (13-0 scoring edge) and the women had racked up a 16-2 scoring margin in the same span, yielding a 29-2 combined scoring margin that only adds to Notre Dame’s case for being the “best soccer school in the nation.”

The robust nature of each program goes beyond won-loss records and national polls. Waldrum and his counterpart, fourth-year men’s head coach Bobby Clark, are widely considered to be among the very best coaches in the country. In fact, Notre Dame was the only school that saw both its men’s and women’s soccer coaches honored as NSCAA regional coaches of the year for the 2003 season. Each of the Irish teams also has fortified its roster with top-ranked recruiting classes and elite-level players, many of them standouts with various national team programs.

Waldrum’s first five seasons (’99-’03) were marred by injuries to key players, some lost for an entire season and others at pivotal points in the postseason. An 18-0-1 start in 2003 was overshadowed by a 2-3-0 slide, as the Irish were unable to overcome late-season injuries to All-Americans Amy Warner and Melissa Tancredi (on top of the season-long absence of injured standout and ’02 All-American Candace Chapman).

The lessons of the past combine with the challenge of the present and the promise of the future in driving the current Notre Dame women’s soccer team. An eight-foot sign atop Grace Hall is lit every night in celebration of the team’s No. 1 ranking and a No. 1 flag waves proudly in front of the Joyce Center. But Waldrum and his players -already playing without four injured players for most of the ’04 season – refuse to get tripped up by their own hype, focusing on each approaching game with a larger goal at the end of the tunnel.

“Even with the players who are out for us, this team has tremendous depth and that has allowed us to use different lineups while resting the key players at certain times,” says Waldrum, who has circled 19 different players as starters (including 17 who have started four-plus games). “Overall, the team has been very focused on the pace of this season and the team goals. It’s a very driven group and they are so enjoyable to coach

The Irish women have been boosted by a preseason training trip to Brazil and by the decisions of two top players – sophomore midfielder Jen Buczkowski and junior forward Katie Thorlakson – to remain at Notre Dame for the entire fall rather than playing in the Under-19 World Championship (Buczkowski would have missed all of Notre Dame’s season while training with the U.S. team while Thorlakson was slated to miss the first three weeks of NCAA Tournament play, as a member of Canada’s team).

While the Notre Dame women have been earning the attention that goes with the top ranking, the Irish men have overcome the graduation of a stellar senior class to remain among the nation’s top programs. Three members of the current senior class – goalkeeper Chris Sawyer and defenders Kevin Goldthwaite and Jack Stewart – have been four-year standouts and now look to lead the program to greater heights.

“The five guys in our senior class have stepped in as great leaders and the team has not missed a beat,” says Avery. “That senior class from last season took us form mid-level to elite status and now these guys want to build on even more.”