Oct. 3, 2014
By Pete LaFleur
Any collegiate sports team fortunate enough to win an NCAA title has countless memories that certainly will last a lifetime. For those teams that have the added bonus of achieving such excellence as part of a roster overflowing with eventual lifelong friends: that’s truly priceless.
The University of Notre Dame’s near-perfect 2004 women’s soccer team fashioned a 25-1-1 record, capping one of those special, life-changing championship seasons. It was the second of the program’s three all-time NCAA titles, with head coach Randy Waldrum later directing his 2010 team to a similar national championship.
Seven of the 2004 starters collected all-BIG EAST Conference honors – led by junior forward Katie Thorlakson and senior center back Melissa Tancredi, both among the final 15 candidates for the Hermann Trophy national player of the year (Thorlakson finished as runner-up). Sophomore attacking midfielder Jen Buczkowski joined that dynamic duo as All-Americans.
Freshman forward Amanda Cinalli and senior forward Candace Chapman – like Thorlakson and Tancredi, one of Canada’s top young players – also received all-BIG EAST honors, as did sophomore defensive midfielder Jill Krivacek and left back Christie Shaner. Two juniors merited Academic All-American recognition: midfielder Annie Schefter and goalkeeper Erika Bohn.
In the three years prior to that championship season, Notre Dame fell short of the program’s postseason standards. It became time for foundational changes.
The 2004 coaching staff scrapped team video review of upcoming opponents and simplified scouting reports. They scaled back tactical training, instead focusing on key in-game situations.
On a broader scale, the term “preseason” expanded to cover January through July. The two weeks before the season became: “rehearsal.”
The team began working closely with a nutritionist. And, yes, there was a ramped-up fitness regimen.
“We had no idea how much our bodies could endure,” says Krivacek with a smile.
“Offseason workouts began at six in the morning, biking across the frozen tundra for weight training, swimming or running.
“Days earned nicknames: Terrible Tuesdays, Weeping Wednesdays. But we stuck together, became so close-knit. No question, that prepared us for becoming champions.”
The team featured former top-rated recruits, but also less-heralded players targeted as “perfect fits.” Buczkowski’s teammates from Chicago’s Eclipse Select squad – Krivacek and right back Kim Lorenzen – thrived in system-specific roles.
“Randy identified which players would work well together and where he could put any player in a position where she was going to shine,” says Tancredi, a converted forward who played alongside fellow center back and Icelandic native Gudrun Gunnarsdottir.
After graduating three top 2003 offensive players, the urgency for scoring offense went to yet another level early in 2004. Freshman forward Susan Pinnick, injured in a summer van accident with her club team, missed the entire season. Four games into the schedule, senior forward Mary Boland suffered a season-ending broken leg.
The Irish avoided any pitfalls or excuse-making, as Thorlakson (23 goals, 24 assists), Chapman (12G-8A) and Cinalli (10G-5A) combined for 45 goals. A star right back earlier in her career, Chapman missed all of 2003 due to knee surgery. By midseason in 2004, she had become part of the solution at forward. Team chemistry is a classic sports cliche, but for the 2004 Irish that bond became a living force. It remains so to this day.
“I didn’t expect a team so competitive to have so much fun,” says Irish assistant coach Dawn Greathouse, still a member of the current Notre Dame women’s soccer coaching staff. “If players lose that perspective, then they get away from a great part of team sports.”
Krivacek put it best: “The 2004 team truly was dynamic and the personalities even more dynamic.”
The team’s fun-loving persona emanated from a spirited nine-member sophomore class, with fifth-year senior team captain Tancredi as its ringleader.
“Mel understood the importance of cultivating strong relationships and common goals. She intentionally created space outside of practices to develop those bonds,” says Claire Gallerano (VeNard), a sophomore midfielder on that 2004 squad and currently program director for the Notre Dame Student Welfare and Development office within the athletics department.
“Silly as it sounds, pregame dance routines in the locker room were instrumental in reinforcing that mindset,” says VeNard. “Everyone had a role and a trust in each other. The relationships were built on a foundation of fun that gave our leadership greater credibility.”
The questions about 2004 offensive output received an early, resounding answer: Thorlakson had arrived. The 5-foot-3 scrapper hit the ground running and never stopped, en route to an historic 70-point season (23G-24A). North Carolina legend Mia Hamm is the only player to total more goals and more assists during the same college season (1992).
Notre Dame allowed only six shots on goal spanning its first four NCAA Championship games. But there was anxiety in the second round versus Wisconsin before Thorlakson’s corner kick found the 5-foot-11 Krivacek for a gamewinning header with 0:53 left in regulation.
Two weeks later, the coaches debated whether to man-mark elite forward Christine Sinclair in the quarterfinal versus Portland. “For the confidence of the team, Randy decided not to change anything,” says Greathouse. “If we let one player beat us, we didn’t deserve to win.
“It was a great decision. Tancredi took Sinclair out of the game, and we won 3-1.” Notre Dame faced another former champion, Santa Clara, in the NCAA semifinals, at SAS Soccer Stadium in Cary, N.C. Shortly after a television timeout, Chapman and Thorlakson worked on an epic give and go in the 73rd minute for the game’s only goal before a sellout crowd of 8,300.
Chapman made a loping run down the center of the field before passing to the right edge of the box. “Chappie always made teammates look good,” says Thorlakson. “If not for her amazing touch, reaction and instinct for the net, that goal wouldn’t have happened.”
Indeed, Chapman hit paydirt, trapping Thorlakson’s return pass off her chest and drilling a 12-yard shot inside the left post.
Two days later, UCLA briefly led after an own-goal. But there must have been some magic in those television timeouts, as the Irish tied the championship on Thorlakson’s 74th-minute penalty kick.
The coaches had been considering third-string goalkeeper Nikki Westfall in the potential shootout, but kept Bohn in goal after she saved a UCLA penalty kick late in regulation. The coaches stuck with their starting ‘keeper in what became the first shootout ever to decide the NCAA women’s soccer championship. Waldrum later revealed another twist.
“I believe players have a feel for penalty kicks, so we let them decide the order,” says Waldrum. “They knew who had the greatest confidence – thankfully, it all worked out,”
Notre Dame’s 10 pre-selected kickers included three non-starters. Sarah Halpenny had not yet played in the game, but the senior calmly converted on a rising shot to the left side.
“Sarah was cool as a cucumber and tough as nails,” says Lorenzen. “She wanted that second kick. PKs are a different animal, but Sarah had no doubt.”
On the initial five kicks, Notre Dame converted its middle three – by Halpenny, Buczkowski and Schefter. UCLA shot wide to start, then Bohn made a change-of-direction kick save in round two.
Krivacek stepped into the spotlight of the sudden-death PK round. She had scored only three goals in 50 career games. No worries. The all-BIG EAST performer slotted her kick into the right side.
UCLA’s Lindsay Greco went for the same corner on her shot, but Bohn leapt to her left and snatched the ball out of the air, hugging it tight – much as she would cradle the NCAA Championship trophy minutes later.
The images remain priceless. Bohn extended both arms, the width of her grin nearly matching that wingspan. Then came the inevitable collision of happiness and sheer joy. Thorlakson was first to arrive, jumping into the six-foot Bohn’s arms with childlike exuberance. More players crashed in split-seconds later, stacking up like a multi-car collision that results in only good memories.
Thorlakson uncharacteristically was overcome by the moment.
“I’m not outwardly emotional, but I started crying,” says Thorlakson. “They were tears of happiness and pride, for everything our team stood for: heart, desire, accomplishment, love.”
Waldrum butted heads with his star player at times in her first two seasons. But, as Greathouse says, “Katie and Randy became much closer by her junior season. No coincidence we won the national title that year.”
“This team truly established its own legacy,” says Waldrum.
“Some believe that great people make great players,” VeNard says. “Our team shows that theory extends to postgrad: great people make great professionals.
“Talent alone didn’t account for the 2004 team’s success. If the last decade of friendship is any indication, that success had more to do with the commitment and love the team had for one another.
“It’s rare to find that many elite student-athletes willing to submerge individual interests for the team,” VeNard says. “Now – despite our different goals and the miles that separate us – my favorite group, whether for celebration or mourning, has been individuals from this team.”
Waldrum’s perspective is more akin to “being a parent, seeing your own kids grow up,” says the coach fondly known by the 2004 jokesters as “Wally.”
“The big picture was even more important if our players had a quality experience and great education,” he says. “We always had one fundamental goal: that the players left Notre Dame as better people than when they came in.” Mission accomplished – with a national title, to boot.