Sept. 21, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – First-year University of Notre Dame women’s soccer coach Theresa Romagnolo huddled her team Saturday night after a slip by a Fighting Irish defender on the rain-soaked turf at Alumni Stadium led to perennial power North Carolina scoring the winning goal in the second overtime of a Top 25 showdown and the Atlantic Coast Conference opener for her squad.
Shortly after the post-game talk, the Notre Dame players put their game faces on and sprinted over for a meet and greet with a couple hundred young fans who were lined up along the sidelines.
Likewise, the No 18/12 Fighting Irish (5-3-1) will have to quickly get their game faces on for another rugged ACC showdown, this time on the road at Virginia Tech on Thursday.
Saturday’s 3-2 victory by North Carolina pitted the two teams with the most national championships in NCAA Division I history. North Carolina has won the national title 21 times, and the Irish own three national titles.
Now the challenge for Romagnolo and the Irish is to make sure a tough loss doesn’t become a tougher loss by snowballing into the next game.
Here are key areas for the Irish as they dive into more rugged ACC action:
The Fighting Irish have a high-character team. Romagnolo won’t have to worry that the North Carolina loss will linger. In fact, the Fighting Irish are already determined to use the North Carolina game as a building block.
“We’ve already had a little bump in our road in the beginning of our season, and we came back from that stronger than ever,” Fighting Irish junior tri-captain Katie Naughton said of earlier late-goal losses to Top 10 teams Texas Tech and USC. “We know we’re capable of coming back strong, and we’re going to do it.
“We just have to use this game as fuel to our fire,” she said. “We’ll go into practice this week and get after the things we need to work on and keep improving on the things we’re good at.”
BE THAT FIRST-HALF TEAM:
After dodging a bullet in the opening minutes when Irish goalie Kaela Little made a spectacular point-blank save, the Fighting Irish went on the attack in the first half against North Carolina.
All-America candidate Morgan Andrews put the Irish on the board by firing in a penalty kick in the 30th minute. Notre Dame stung the Tar Heels for a second goal when freshman midfielder Taylor Klawunder connected off an assist by Morgan in the 40th minute.
Romagnolo’s Fighting Irish joined elite company by taking the 2-0 lead over North Carolina. The mighty Tar Heels had only trailed by two goals in the first half in three games since 1982 (705 matches).
If the Irish can gain a two-goal lead on North Carolina, the Irish are capable of being a power player in the NCAA Championship.
“I want to see the team I saw in the first half, the team that brought a lot of energy, that was pressing and not giving the other team any time on the ball,” Romagnolo said of what she wants from the Irish the rest of the season. “I want to see us making quick decisions on the ball to keep it and to move off the ball.”
Notre Dame transitioned well, better than it had all season, and Romagnolo wants to see that continue. The Irish attacked space well and had good runs off the ball. By stepping up the attack, the Irish limited North Carolina’s offensive opportunities and created chances for themselves.
Naughton thinks the Fighting Irish intensity was a difference-maker in the first half.
“We played excellent the first half,” Naughton said. “Knowing that we’re able to play like that, to play great soccer and score goals and create opportunities is a great thing to have. I liked our tenacity. We were getting after it and going hard into tackles. Everybody was on the same page. We were passing, people were open and creating great angles for each other.”
DON’T LET UP:
As much as Romagnolo loved the Fighting Irish energy in the first half, she was concerned that Notre Dame didn’t maintain the attack when it grabbed the 2-0 lead.
“There was a point in the game where we suddenly dropped off,” Romagnolo said. “We allowed Carolina to have time on the ball and to do what they wanted. I don’t know why that happened.
“Some of the success we were having was from our hustle. That’s something we need to work on, doing that the duration of the game, not thinking about packing it in in front of our box, because we’ll invite them to do whatever they want.”
In the second half, North Carolina took advantage of Notre Dame packing in on the defensive end. Cameron Castleberry scored off of an assist by Emily Bruder in the 61st minute. The Tar Heels tied the score with 14:13 left in regulation when Joanna Boyles tucked a free kick from 24 yards just under the goal’s top bar.
Kat Nigro finished the scoring in the 101st minute, scoring from 10 yards out after Fighting Irish defender Sammy Scofield slipped and fell on the slippery turf.
The pain of the overtime loss for the Fighting Irish was magnified, since it was the first time in 27 seasons that Notre Dame had lost after owning a 2-0 advantage. The Fighting Irish entered the match 351-0-1 all-time with a 2-0 edge.
The solution to avoiding another painful loss–keep the intensity cranked up and stay on the attack.
PUT THE GAME IN PERSPECTIVE:
Although it’s tough to see positives as the players walked off of the field after the 3-2 loss to a team the Fighting Irish love to beat, there are a lot of reasons for Notre Dame to feel good about what the Irish can accomplish this season in the NCAA Championship and the ACC:
— Clearly, the Fighting Irish have made Alumni Stadium a tough place for opponents with their play and the support of Irish nation. Even the threat of thunderstorms couldn’t dampen the spirits of 2,024 Fighting Irish fans who packed the home stands.
— Notre Dame played an exceptional game against the preeminent soccer program in the nation, a game that was impacted by a slip on the wet turf. “We played one of the best games I’ve seen us play,” Romagnolo said. “We had a lot of great offensive sequences. We defended very well. It’s the best pressure I’ve seen us put on all year.”
— Fighting Irish goalkeeper Little stood out against a Final Four-caliber team.
“Kaela had some great saves,” Romagnolo said. “I think right away, Kaela Little kept us in the game. She’s a tremendous goalkeeper and she’s going to keep us in games.”
— The Fighting Irish will learn and grow from the North Carolina game.
“This was a great game for us,” Romagnolo said. “All ACC games prepare you for the tournament. It was a great game in so many ways. We’re going to continue to learn from our mistakes. Right now, it’s about our defensive pressing and our defensive mentality to not allow teams to step up and have time on the ball.”
— Curt Rallo, special correspondent