May 5, 2016

By Joanne Norell

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — After a successful spring campaign, University of Notre Dame women’s soccer head coach Theresa Romagnolo is looking ahead to the 2016 fall slate with renewed excitement.

With the graduation of five key seniors, including three that anchored the staunch Irish back line, Romagnolo will be looking for contributions from a host of fresh faces. After posting a 5-1 spring mark, highlighted by a 4-1 win over the Mexico U-20 Women’s National Team on April 22, she’s bolstered by both the on-field performance and off-field attitude the newest Irish roster has so far exhibited.

“It was a very productive spring,” Romagnolo said. “Every January, you’re starting again without your seniors and it’s an opportunity for younger players to get experience and to make a case for themselves. As a group, I think we raised the bar in terms of some of our expectations and I think [the coaching staff] challenged them to hold a higher standard for themselves, and I think they did that.”

The Irish kicked off the spring with a 9-0 victory over Unionville (Canada) on March 19 before meeting the National Women’s Soccer League’s Chicago Red Stars on April 6 at Alumni Stadium, where the Irish fell in a tight 3-2 contest. They went on to win their final four matches, however, with triumphs over Purdue (2-1), Ball State (2-0), Northwestern (1-0) and Mexico.

Romagnolo was particularly impressed with the development of the new-look Irish defense. With the departure of Katie Naughton, Cari Roccaro and Brittany Von Rueden, the Irish will have significant holes to fill next season. Romagnolo was pleased, however, with how the preview of how the line might shape up next fall, with sophomores-to-be Rachel Heard and Natalie Ward and rising junior Ginny McGowan joining returning starter Monica Flores and showing flashes of becoming the defense that has become Notre Dame’s hallmark.

“It’s a new group that we’re putting together that doesn’t have that experience playing together,” Romagnolo said. “Ginny had experience, but Rachel and Natalie Ward didn’t really have that experience and we were working with that group a lot. When it came to the game, we were watching to see what they learned, what their instincts were like, and I think we were really pleased with the way everything came together as we headed into April.”

Also impressive to Romagnolo was the development of the forward attack, led by incoming senior Kaleigh Olmsted, rising junior Kaitlin Klawunder and freshman Jennifer Westendorf. The trio combined for eight goals throughout the spring to lead the Irish offense, with Westendorf pacing the squad with four goals and Olmsted and Klawunder chipping in three apiece. Notre Dame will need that kind of offensive output with the graduation of 2015 leading scorer Anna Maria Gilbertson.

“I like the way this group moves the ball,” Romagnolo said. “We’ve possessed it really well. Our speed of play has been very good. Our speed of thought has been very good. Those are two big things that we’ve improved on this spring.”

Romagnolo also pointed to junior-to-be Taylor Klawunder, who looks to take on a bigger role in the Irish midfield, and praised her ability to control the team’s tempo and serve as a link between the offense and defense.

“They were very eager to learn and we threw a lot of things at them. They asked a lot of questions, were very receptive to the information. They want to be great.”

The Irish capped the spring with the selection of next season’s captain, with the team tabbing senior-to-be Sandra Yu as its leader. Romagnolo cited Yu’s ability to handle adversity — having missed her freshman and sophomore seasons rehabbing from a knee injury — communicate well and care for her teammates as some of the many reasons her teammates overwhelmingly voted for Yu.

“Sandra embodies a lot of the qualities that we look for in a captain,” Romagnolo said. “She’s one of our hardest workers, and everything she’s earned is because of her passion for the game and how hard she wants to work. I think people really respect what she’s accomplished. She’s has a very high standard for this program and she’s going to make sure we hold that standard.”

The Irish will release their 2016 schedule later this summer.

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Joanne Norell, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2014 and coordinates communications efforts for the Notre Dame women’s soccer, men’s tennis, women’s tennis and fencing programs. Norell is a 2011 graduate of Purdue University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication, and earned her master’s degree in sports industry management from Georgetown University in 2013.