Sept. 25, 2006
By Chris Masters
One of the more common axioms in sports argues that championships are not won by the acts of a single player. Instead, glory is achieved through the actions of a team, a combination of many individuals who all have the same goal in mind of doing whatever is necessary to help the team succeed.
In 2005-06, the Notre Dame athletics team — the one made up of 26 sports and more than 750 student-athletes — enjoyed its finest season ever, thanks to the contributions of numerous individuals whose singular focus was to put the Irish atop the college sports mountain. When the ’05-’06 athletics year came to a close in June, Notre Dame had posted a best-ever sixth-place finish in the United States Sports Academy (USSA) Division I Directors’ Cup all-sports competition, sponsored by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (formerly known as Sears Directors’ Cup).
The Directors’ Cup race is designed to honor those institutions that maintain a successful broad-based athletics program, achieving success in many sports on both the men’s and women’s side. It began in 1993-94 with a Division I competition sponsored by NACDA and USA Today, and was expanded in 1995-96 to include Division II, III and the NAIA. In Division I, schools are awarded points in a maximum of 20 sports (10 men’s and 10 women’s), with the top point getter designated as the overall Directors’ Cup champion and recipient of a Waterford crystal trophy symbolizing its success.
Upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see why Notre Dame had one of the nation’s best across-the-board athletics programs last year. The Irish produced record numbers of All-Americans (44), Academic All-Americans (14), combination All-Americans/Academic All-Americans (five), BIG EAST Conference Championship teams (13, a league record), teams qualifying for postseason play (24) and teams finishing in the national top 15 (13) in ’05-’06.
What’s more, Notre Dame had nine teams (more than one-third of its 26-sport athletics program) finish in the national top 10 in end-of-season rankings, and six sports achieved top-10 finishes in NCAA competition. The Irish produced three national coaches of the year in Charlie Weis (football), Tracy Coyne (women’s lacrosse) and Jay Louderback (women’s tennis), and they had four programs finish in the top four of their respective NCAA championships — men’s and women’s fencing (they compete for a combined championship), women’s lacrosse and men’s cross country.
“Our sixth-place finish in the Directors’ Cup competition is a tribute to the dedication and excellence of a large group of student-athletes, coaches, administrators and support staff — and we are deeply appreciative of all of their contributions,” said Notre Dame athletics director Kevin White.
“We’re pleased with the progress we’ve made as we’ve continued to chip away in the rankings. But, we’re not satisfied. Our next challenge is to find away to continue to move up the ladder.”
For the second consecutive year, Notre Dame got off to a flying start in the Directors’ Cup competition, finishing in first place at the conclusion of the fall 2005 season with a school-record 412 points. All six Irish fall sports teams placed among the top 16 in their respective NCAA championships, led by the men’s cross country team, whose third-place finish at the NCAA meet was its best since a similar placement in 1990. The Notre Dame women’s cross country team took seventh-place honors at the NCAA Championships, marking the first time in school history that both Irish cross country squads posted top-10 NCAA finishes in the same year.
“Our runners put in a tremendous amount of work during the off-season and our NCAA finishes were the result of an awful lot of effort on their part,” Notre Dame head men’s cross country coach Joe Piane said. “I’m so pleased that both of our cross country programs were able to contribute a great deal to the overall success of our athletics program in 2005-06.”
The Notre Dame football team enjoyed a renaissance in 2005 under Weis, going 9-3 and earning a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) berth before ending the year with a No. 11 national ranking. Coming off an NCAA title in 2004, the Irish women’s soccer team was ranked No. 1 in the nation for a good portion of the ’05 season and advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals before falling at eventual national champion Portland. The Notre Dame men’s soccer team made its first-ever trip to the NCAA round of 16 on the strength of a historic 2-0 victory at Indiana in the second round of the tournament, narrowly missing further advancement with a 1-0 season-ending loss at Clemson. And, the Irish volleyball team soared to unprecedented heights in 2005, climbing to fifth in the national polls and amassing a superb 30-4 record, winning the BIG EAST regular-season and tournament titles and rolling all the way to the NCAA regional semifinals for the first time since 1997.
During the 2005-06 winter season, Notre Dame’s biggest success came in fencing with a fourth-place showing at the NCAA Championships, marking the 13th consecutive year and 20th time in the past 21 seasons the Irish have recorded a top-five finish in NCAA competition. In addition, Notre Dame advanced to postseason play in women’s basketball (NCAA first round), men’s indoor track & field (NCAA 33rd-place finish), women’s indoor track & field (NCAA 39th-place finish), women’s swimming (NCAA 41st-place finish) and men’s basketball (National Invitation Tournament second round).
The Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team celebrates after defeating Georgetown in the NCAA quarterfinals. The Irish produced the most dramatic turnaround in NCAA history – going from 3-12 in 2005 to 15-4 in 2006 – to advance to the NCAA final four for the first time in the program’s history. (Photo by Marcus Snowden)
The spring 2006 season proved to be a cornucopia of success for the Irish, with 10 of 11 teams qualifying for NCAA Championship competition. Perhaps no single squad better exemplified Notre Dame’s yearlong parade of excellence than the women’s lacrosse team. Led by Coyne, the Irish posted the best single-season improvement in NCAA history (+10 wins) during the ’06 campaign, posting a school-record 15-4 mark and going all the way to the NCAA national semifinals for the first time in program history.
“Our goal coming into the (NCAA Championship) weekend was to win a national championship and we didn’t get that done,” Coyne said. “Still, I was awfully proud of our team and what we accomplished.”
The Irish women’s tennis team also had a record-setting season, tying the second-most wins in program history with a 27-2 record, rising up to No. 2 in the national polls for much of the year and charging to the NCAA quarterfinals, matching the program’s best-ever postseason performance. Notre Dame’s men’s tennis team was nearly as successful, battling its way to the NCAA round of 16 and sending an individual (sophomore Sheeva Parbhu) to the quarterfinals of the NCAA singles tournament for the first time since 1959.
The Notre Dame women’s rowing team achieved a historic milestone in 2006 with its best-ever NCAA Championship finish (ninth place), while the Irish softball squad advanced to the regional finals for the second consecutive year and fourth time in program history. The Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002, while the Irish baseball and men’s golf teams both qualified for NCAA regional play. In addition, both Notre Dame outdoor track & field squads sent athletes to the NCAA Championships, with senior Molly Huddle posting the best individual NCAA finish ever by an Irish female with her runner-up showing in the 5,000-meter run.
While the 2005-06 athletics year was one for the record books at Notre Dame, it appears the Irish athletes and coaches are taking White’s missive to heart and not resting on their collective laurels. Heading into the 2006 fall season, four Notre Dame squads are ranked among the top 25 in the nation — football (2nd AP/3rd ESPN-USA Today), women’s soccer (5th), men’s soccer (15th) and volleyball (21st) — with the preseason cross country rankings still to be announced. Thus, when historians look back on the 2005-06 campaign, it likely won’t be seen as a high-water mark in Notre Dame athletics, but rather the first step on a journey of success never before seen in school history.