Senior defender Cari Roccaro has helped anchor a Notre Dame defense that has given up an average of just 1.9 shots per game through eight matches this season.

Irish Extra: Defense Building Early Confidence for Irish Women's Soccer

Sept. 15, 2015

When a Michigan player drove into the attacking zone of the University of Notre Dame women’s soccer team, defenders Cari Roccaro and Ginny McGowan immediately converged on the Wolverines’ player.

In an instant, the Michigan player went from attacker to target.

Roccaro zeroed in from the left, and McGowan attacked head-on, quickly stole the ball and transitioned into offense.

“We’re going to double up on these girls and not let them through,” Roccaro said of the Irish mindset when opponents try to attack. “We’re going to be that brick wall that the team needs.”

Notre Dame’s relentless pressure carried the Fighting Irish to a 2-0 victory against the Wolverines Sunday afternoon at Alumni Stadium.

Coach Theresa Romagnolo’s Irish improved to 7-0-1, posting their sixth shutout of the season. Notre Dame limited Michigan to only one shot on goal and three shots. The Wolverines entered Sunday’s game averaging nine shots on goal and 22 shots a game.

“I thought we defended really well,” said Romagnolo, whose team is ranked No. 10 in the NSCAA coaches’ poll. “I thought the back four did a great job. The midfielders were also doubling back on the forwards to limit the time that they had on the ball. I thought we didn’t give them any great opportunities. We did a good job of keeping them in front of us.

“You see the pressure that our front-runners are able to put on the ball to make play predictable for everyone behind. The midfielders are reading it well. They’re stepping in and picking off passes, they’re doubling back. I feel that we’re working really well together as a group.”

Notre Dame opens Atlantic Coast Conference play Saturday at Clemson. The match-up against Big Ten force Michigan proved a perfect final tune-up for ACC play because of the way it tested the Irish.

“I liked this game, because it posed some different things than we’ve seen in the non-conference,” Romagnolo said. “We saw a team that possessed it well, that was able to work the ball up the field, and we had to defend for a length of time. I think we haven’t had to do that a lot. We had the patience to get numbers behind the ball and wait for the opportunity to win it.

“The area we can still grow is having the composure to keep the ball when we win it. When you defend it for a spell, sometimes you get tired. The hard thing is that when you do win it, to have that calmness to play out of that first pressure and keep it.”

Roccaro said she and the Irish are eager to embark on the ACC season.

“I’ve been extremely confident heading into pre-season, and now, seeing how we’ve done against a great team like Michigan and not give up a goal . . . I just walked over to our team and said, ‘We’re ready,'” Roccaro said. “Michigan kept coming at us for 45 minutes [in the second half], and we didn’t give up a goal. Everyone should be feeling really confident.”

Roccaro, an All-America candidate as a senior defender/midfielder, said experience and competitiveness have emerged as key strengths for the Irish in the first eight games. The Irish also have forged cohesiveness on the backline through trust and communication, and that cohesiveness has been the cornerstone of the defensive success.

“I think having the awareness and the ability to move early and prevent passes has been really important,” Roccaro said. “We’re stopping their ideas before they develop because they have an idea and we see it and move and stop them and prevent the attack.”

Romagnolo said that awareness has been essential in building defensive effectiveness.

“What’s really important for us is reading the game,” Romagnolo said. “The goals we have allowed, we didn’t read the game. Now, I feel like we’re paying attention to every play. We’re reading. If it’s going to be a service, we’re dropping into that space. If it’s short, we’re pressing as a group. I feel like the back four are reading the game very well and much better than they were. I’m excited about what I’m starting to see with that group.”

Katie Naughton, a senior and the ACC Defensive Player of the Week after the wins over Indiana and Michigan, said the Irish back four has improved at reading the game.

“We’re quicker to read the game and know where the ball is going to come and intercept passes,” Naughton said. “We’re cutting off passing lanes. We’re also doing a good job of communicating. We’re a really good, cohesive group right now.

“I think getting six shutouts in our first eight games is a testament to how well we are working with each other. We’re listening to each other really well. We have a good trust in each other. A big component is trusting our teammates and knowing we’re all going to have each other’s backs.”

Naughton said the Irish deny opportunities before opponents can get into the attack zone.

“We want to swarm the other team and break them down before they even get a look at the goal,” Naughton said. “We’ve been doing a great job of doubling back on the attacking team. It’s been really exciting to see us win that ball and then transition quickly into our offense. It’s been a great non-conference season for us. We’re in a good spot going into the ACC.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent