Notre Dame will enter the 2005 season with the top ranking in the coaches poll for the first time, after being No. 2 in five preveious NSCAA preseason polls.

Irish Sports Program Once Again Falling In Line Among Nation's Best

Oct. 21, 2004

Notre Dame’s fall sports teams have combined for strong showings in recent years and the Irish once again are leading the pack in overall fall sports success. Five of Notre Dame’s six fall sports teams – women’s soccer (1st), men’s soccer (5th), men’s cross country (5th), women’s cross country (6th) and football (25th) – are ranked in the national top-25 of their respective coaches polls, yielding a combined level of success that currently is unmatched in Division I athletics. Most notably, no other school is ranked among the top 25 in more than four of the six fall sports sponsored by Notre Dame – and the Irish now find themselves on the short list of schools with the top combined men’s and women’s soccer programs and top combined cross country squads.

The distinction of having four teams ranked sixth or higher is comparable to the final week of March in 2001, when the Notre Dame men’s and women’s fencing teams combined for a third-place NCAA finish, the baseball team earned its highest national ranking to date (6th, later moving up to No. 1) and the top-ranked Irish women’s basketball team won the national title.

When looking at this week’s national polls for the six fall sports sponsored by Notre Dame (also volleyball), only three other schools are ranked in even four of those sports: Florida (men’s cross country, football, women’s soccer, volleyball), Stanford (men’s and women’s cross country, women’s soccer, volleyball) and Tennessee (women’s cross country, football, women’s soccer, volleyball).

Notre Dame also continues to make a strong case for having one of the nation’s top combined men’s and women’s soccer programs and top combined men’s and women’s cross country teams. The Irish are No. 1 in the NSCAA women’s soccer poll and 5th in the men’s poll, with Virginia (3rd men, 5th women) representing the only other team in the top-12 of both polls. UCLA is the only other school with both of its soccer teams in the top 15 of the NSCAA polls while Duke, Washington and SMU also have a pair of top-20 teams. Boston College and Connecticut round out the group of nine schools with both soccer programs currently in the NSCAA top 25.

The Notre Dame men’s (11-2-2) and women’s (15-0-0) soccer teams have totaled the most combined wins in Division I (26-2-2, as of Oct. 20), followed by Duke (25-6-0) and Virginia (24-4-1). No other schools have more than 22 combined soccer wins but 10 have 20-plus: UNC Greensboro (22-4-2), SMU (21-5-2), Dayton (21-6-1), Penn State (20-4-6), Washington (20-6-3), UC Santa Barbara (20-5-2), Santa Clara (20-7-2), Virginia Commonwealth (20-7-1), Boston College (20-8-0) and West Virginia (20-9-0).

On the cross country side, Notre Dame joins Stanford (1st women, 2nd men) and Colorado (3rd men and women) as the only schools ranked at least 7th or better in both polls. Michigan and Arizona State also currently have a pair of top-10 cross country programs; BYU has both of its teams in the top 15; Villanova and Arkansas are among the top-20 in both polls; and Colorado State is the ninth school with its teams in both top-25 cross country polls.

The Irish women’s cross country team boasts three returning All-Americans, led by junior standout Molly Huddle (who recently placed 3rd at the Pre-National Meet in Terra Haute, Ind.). Seniors Lauren King and Kerry Meagher also have run to All-America honors in past NCAAs and figure to combine with Huddle and the team’s other top runners – juniors Stephanie Madia, Jean Marinangeli and Elizabeth Webster, and freshman Sunni Olding – in giving the Irish a shot at the 2004 national title.

Sophomore Kurt Benninger’s emergence (he placed 8th at the Pre-National) has helped overcome the loss of graduated Todd Mobley on the men’s side while junior Tim Moore (13th at Pre-National) is a proven All-American performer who can lead the Irish men’s squad, with other top runners including seniors Sean O’Donnell and Ryan Johnson, juniors Kaleb Van Ort and Vincent Ambrico, and freshman Jake Watson.

The top-ranked women’s soccer team owns a 41-9 scoring edge and is riding a 35-1-1 streak in its last 37 regular-season games. The Irish have overcome the early-season loss of injured senior forward and All-America candidate Mary Boland, with junior Katie Thorlakson (11 goals, 12 assists) emerging as a player-of-the-year candidate while three others – senior forward Candace Chapman (6G-5A), sophomore midfielder Jen Buczkowski (6G-5A) and freshman forward Amanda Cinalli (7G-3A) – each have chipped in 17 points to the attack. Junior Annie Schefter has combined with Buczkowski to run the Irish midfield, with sophomore Jill Krivacek filling the defensive midfielder role as possibly the team’s most improved player.

Defensively, the Irish women may have their best backline group in the program’s history – with senior central backs Melissa Tancredi and Gudrun Gunnarsdottir combining with sophomore outside backs Christie Shaner and Kim Lorenzen for a talented and diverse foursome. Junior goalkeeper Erika Bohn is a third-year starter for the Irish, with a 43-10-1 career record.

The Notre Dame men’s soccer team – riding a 7-0-1 streak (15-1 scoring edge) and on the verge of the program’s first BIG EAST regular-season title (6-1-1) – has remained among the nation’s elite despite graduating a strong senior class that included the 2003 team’s top two goalscorers and a pair of key playmakers in the midfield. Sophomore Justin McGeeney (5G-1A) and junior Tony Megna (5G) have stepped into the forward roles while the team’s greatest experience lies in the defensive third, led by senior goalkeeper Chris Sawyer (5th in nation with 0.45 goals-against average). Two of Sawyer’s classmates, Kevin Goldthwaite and Jack Stewart, combine with sophomore Greg Dalby to give the Irish back line multiple All-America candidates.

The Irish football team (5-2) has showcased a diverse offensive attack and a veteran-led defense that ranks 21st in the nation with just 105.3 opponent rushing yards per game. Sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn has been able to throw to several capable targets, with junior tight end Anthony Fasano combining with a variety of receivers – senior Matt Shelton, juniors Rhema McKnight and Maurice Stovall, and sophomore Jeff Samardzija – who each have delivered big plays in the 2004 season. Senior running back Ryan Grant and freshman Darius Walker likewise have delivered on the ground while running behind a veteran offensive line that is anchored by sophomore center John Sullivan.

A trio of senior linebackers – Derek Curry, Mike Goolsby and Brandon Hoyte – have set the tone for the 2004 Irish defense while cornerback Dwight Ellick and safety Quentin Burrell are the returning starters and senior leaders of the secondary. Speedy left end Justin Tuck, Notre Dame’s No. 2 all-time sack leader, has combined with fellow linemen Kyle Budinscak and Greg Pauly to give the Irish defense even more battle-tested senior leadership in 2004.