Nov. 15, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Kaleigh Olmsted doesn’t remember crossing into the goal box in the final minute of the University of Notre Dame women’s soccer game against Valparaiso in a first round NCAA Championship game Friday night at frozen Alumni Stadium.
Olmsted doesn’t remember the circumstances in which the cross pass that was perfectly lobbed by Anna Maria Gilbertson landed right at her feet, six yards from the Valparaiso goal.
What was memorable for Olmsted was that she was able to twist and then leap to make a booming left-footed kick into the net, giving the Fighting Irish a goal with 50 seconds left in the game, a goal that would stand for a 1-0 victory.
Coach Theresa Romagnolo’s No.-4 seed Fighting Irish (13-5-2) advance to play Texas (11-7-4) next Friday at College Station, Texas, in second-round NCAA Championship action. Valpo, which was riding an 18-game unbeaten streak, is finished at 14-2-4.
Notre Dame fired off a remarkable 25 shots against the nation’s No. 5-ranked defense, but it wasn’t until the 90th minute that the Fighting Irish made tournament magic happen. Olmsted’s goal is the latest tournament goal in the storied NCAA history of the three-time national champion Irish.
“It was awesome, especially the way it happened,” Romagnolo said of the last-minute Irish victory. “I felt that we got around the outside of them a lot. We just hadn’t delivered the right ball, and hadn’t been in the right spot. For it to finally come to fruition was kind of that ‘ahhhh’ moment. It was great.”
During the regular season, Notre Dame learned painful lessons about finishing, especially in setbacks against national powers Virginia and North Carolina. Virginia beat the Irish with a goal in the final 21 seconds, and North Carolina beat Notre Dame with a goal in the second overtime.
On Friday night, Notre Dame proved it is tourney tough and that it was the team teaching lessons about finishing.
“I think we’ve got a good toughness about it,” Romagnolo said of the way the Fighting Irish have dealt with early adversity. “We’ve seen a lot of great opponents this season and learned a lot of good lessons. Defensively, we’re very strong, and we’ve got a lot of weapons going to goal. What I was proud of was that we kept persevering, and defensively we remained very strong and we found a way.”
Notre Dame dominated against Valparaiso, peppering the Crusaders’ highly regarded offense. But until the last minute, the Fighting Irish shots were near-misses.
“We had so many chances, and we just relentlessly went at them and at them,” Olmsted said. “It was unlucky time and time again. When we got that goal, it was like … relief … joy … anxiety was just lifted off. Cari (Roccaro) came up and squeezed me as hard as she could. There was so much love for my team.”
Olmsted said the Fighting Irish entered the NCAA Championship knowing they would be tested, but that they were ready for the challenge. She said the Fighting Irish team chemistry has played a big part in helping the team build momentum for the tournament and go 6-1-1 in its last eight games.
“I love every single one of my teammates,” Olmsted said. “I’ve never really been part of a team where I really feel I belong and everyone accepts me and encourages me. I feel like on the field as the season has gone on, you make a bad tackle and they’re always like, `It’s fine, get the next one.’ They never get on you. It’s always positive encouragement.
“We’ve had some letdowns against some of the best teams in the nation. Afterward, it’s not whose fault it is, who made the bad tackle, it’s like, OK, that’s a lesson, we’re moving forward. I think I’m proudest of our resilience and everything that we’ve accomplished so far.”
Taking command in the final minute to knock in the game-winner was a measure of the significant progress the Fighting Irish have made under Romagnolo.
“I thought it was a testament to how well we played,” Romagnolo said of the thrilling victory. “Anytime we’re creating that many opportunities for ourselves, we’re doing something right. We moved the ball pretty well. The movement off the ball was pretty well. We needed to finish a chance. At the end of the day, I thought Anna Maria (Gilbertson) stepped up huge for us, creating a goal, and then Kaleigh (Olmsted) just smacked it in the back of the net. She was proactive in finding herself in a good area of the field.”
Depth played a key factor in the Fighting Irish goal.
“Anna Maria (Gilbertson) created the goal,” Romagnolo said. “She came off the bench for us. Taylor Schneider came in the midfield for us. She hasn’t played a lot recently, but she came up huge for us with the energy and the quality she brought in the center mid. I think this team is very deep. We talk about it all the time, you never know when you’re going to be called upon to have that big moment. I think that a lot of people stepped up tonight and had that big moment for us.”
Notre Dame was able to put aside its frustration at having so many near-misses.
“There was definitely that frustration, but to keep the players positive and keep them believing was really our focus,” Romagnolo said. “That’s the game. Some games, it’s just harder to score, and you just have to keep persevering and find a way.
“We’ve had a lot of 1-nil games. One thing I’m proud of is the fact we will fight and scrap and keep working until we get that last goal, yet defensively we do remain strong. We keep our focus, we stay disciplined … and that’s the most important thing. The goals are going to come.”
As Notre Dame heads to the second round of the NCAA Championship, Romagnolo is pleased with the way the Fighting Irish always kept their focus despite frustrating moments.
“I think this team has done a pretty good job of moving forward,” Romagnolo said. “I think if anything, if bad things happen, they get mad and step on the field ready to take it out on the next opponent. This team has responded well to any adversity.”
— Curt Rallo, special correspondent