Aug. 8, 2016
By Joanne Norell
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — University of Notre Dame women’s soccer head coach Theresa Romagnolo acknowledges that the 2016 NCAA soccer season will be far from a typical year.
With many of the nation’s best collegiate players earning spots to play at this winter’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup — including Irish standouts Sabrina Flores (junior, United States), Natalie Jacobs (sophomore, United States), Monica Flores (junior, Mexico) and Jennifer Westendorf (freshman, Brazil) — the NCAA landscape will take a different shape than last season. Per a new rule from U.S. Soccer, players for the U.S. squad will sit out the collegiate season, while players for international teams will head to Papua New Guinea for the tournament come the NCAA postseason.
That prospect will leave the Irish without it’s top two returning scorers from last season in Jacobs (13 points, four goals, five assists) and Sabrina Flores (12 points, three goals, six assists) for the entirety of 2016. Yet while the loss of those student-athletes will certainly be felt, the team that is taking shape so far into preseason camp has given Romagnolo cause for excitement.
“What I’ve loved so far about the preseason is the mentality of the group,” Romagnolo said. “I just feel that they’re competing at a very high level. They’re very intense, very competitive. … It’s a new group and they’re eager and bring a great work ethic every day. I’m just excited to see where it takes us.”
The Irish, who opened camp last Wednesday, will return six student-athletes who started at least nine matches on a 2015 squad that went 14-5-1 and finished sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame has been chosen to once again come in sixth in the conference, but with that comes an opportunity to turn heads on a league and national level.
“In the ACC, you see all the quality teams that are in the top 25 — seven teams in the top 25, and I love the ACC for that reason,” said Romagnolo, whose Irish rank 13th in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America preseason poll. “There’s really no easy game. You’ve got to take everyone seriously. … They picked us to finish sixth, so that’s some great motivation from our end to finish much higher than sixth.
“The goal is to be another great Notre Dame soccer team and one of the great teams that has played here. This group has aspirations of doing that and when you look at the mentality and the things that they’re talking about that are important to them, that’s what you’re seeing coming out.”
THE IRISH BY POSITION
Four goalkeepers pepper the Irish roster this season, led by three-year starter Kaela Little. The newly minted Irish captain posted a career best 0.55 goals against average last season, good for third among ACC goalkeepers. Her seven solo shutouts were also good for fifth in the league in 2015.
Challenging Little for time in the net will be junior Lexi Nicholas, who started the first six games of the 2015 season while Little recovered from foot surgery. Nicholas boasts a career 0.71 goals against average in eight career matches, and impressed Romagnolo during spring play when Nicholas and Little split time.
“Kaela and Lexi, based on the spring, are really battling it out for the spot. … Kaela Little is probably our most experienced goalkeeper, but in the spring, Kaela and Lexi both split time and I thought Lexi did a great job.”
The Irish also add two newcomers to the roster: freshman Brooke Littman and senior Kiley Adams.
The Irish will get a new-look back line this season with the graduation of central defenders Katie Naughton and Cari Roccaro and outside back Brittany Von Rueden this spring. Monica Flores will retain her spot on the outside, while junior Ginny McGowan and sophomore Rachel Heard take over in the middle and sophomore Natalie Ward steps into the remaining outside position.
The new unit played together throughout the spring and into the summer when the Irish played a pair of matches during their foreign tour in France. Romagnolo also sees freshman Alexis Martel-Lamothe making an impact for the Irish on defense.
“I think (Ginny) and Rachel have a great relationship, so I like them both at that center back position,” Romagnolo said. “We do have a freshman, Lexi (Martel-Lamothe), who is also a very good center back and who’s played with the Canadian youth system. She’s a player who could help us either at the center back position or maybe even in the midfield.”
Senior captain Sandra Yu returns to anchor the Irish midfield after an impressive “rookie” campaign in 2015. After sitting out her first two seasons because of injury, Yu stepped into a starting role last season and made an immediate impact. Contributing eight points on three goals and two assists, Yu’s biggest contributions came from her ability to win possession and attack, even earning a few starts at forward.
Returning, too, is junior Taylor Klawunder, who started nine matches for the Irish last year and will also help the Irish in the possession game.
“They are the two big ones for us and are really the engine of our midfield,” Romagnolo said. “TK is an incredible ball-winner who can switch the point of attack for us. She’s just such a tremendous competitor, same as Sandra. Sandra is more of a creative attacking player, but both can score goals and both work so hard and do so much on the ball and are tremendous defenders.”
Senior captain Kaleigh Olmsted returns as the most seasoned of the Irish forwards, but will be joined by a talented cast who look to give the Irish a more potent attack. Juniors Karin Muya and Kaitlin Klawunder and freshman Westendorf all look to combine for a dangerous Irish offense in various combinations.
“Those four have started to emerge as very dangerous attacking players,” Romagnolo said. “They’ve all had the chance to play together again in the offseason. They’re a dynamic attacking group. They can each score goals, they can set each other up and it’s been fun to see the combinations and the chemistry that they’re building on the front line.”
In the absence of Jacobs and Sabrina Flores, Olmsted comes in as the top returning scorer from last year with 11 points on four goals and three assists. Muya, who missed last season while rehabbing an injury, posted 11 points on four goals and three assists as a freshman in 2014. Westendorf, who was a January enrollee, led the Irish this spring with four goals, while adding two more during the team’s trip to France. Olmstead, who also added a goal in France, and Kaitlin Klawunder were the team’s second-leading scorers in the spring with three goals apiece, while Muya tallied a pair of goals across the pond.
Notre Dame will get its first taste of competition 3 p.m. ET Tuesday when it welcomes Northwestern for an exhibition contest at Alumni Stadium. The Irish will wrap up the preseason slate at 1 p.m. Sunday at Illinois.
The real tests begin August 19 in the season opener against Wright State, followed by a visit from Big Ten foe Wisconsin on August 21. The Irish will follow that up by a primetime Big Ten Network matchup at Michigan on August 25.
After hosting Western Michigan (August 28), Illinois State (September 2) and Missouri (September 4), the Irish will head west for their biggest non-conference challenges at No. 21 Santa Clara (September 9) and No. 5 Stanford (September 11).
The first ACC test will come on the road when the Irish swing through Syracuse (September 18) and NC State (September 22). Then, they return home to face Pittsburgh (September 25) before heading to Louisville to kick off October. After meeting Clemson (October 6), Virginia (October 9) and North Carolina (October 14) during a marquee stretch at home, the Irish will visit Virginia Tech (October 20) and Wake Forest (October 23) before wrapping up the season at home against Miami (October 27).
“I think it’s a great schedule,” Romangolo said. “We’ve got some great home games. I love the games out in California before we start ACC play. [Santa Clara and Stanford] are the highest ranked preseason opponents that we’re going to play, so I think it’s nice to be able to play those two on the road and challenge ourselves before we head into the ACC season.
New this season will be an expanded ACC Championship, set to take place over the course of a week from October 30-November 6. Eight teams — increased from four — will compete for the league title, with quarterfinal matches taking place at campus sites and the semifinals and finals scheduled at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina.
“The more teams that participate, it increases the student-athlete experience,” said Romangolo of the expanded conference tournament. “Any time you can be part of the tournament feeling, it’s fun. It’s an opportunity to host that initial game. I like it because I feel you get to prepare for the NCAA tournament with the `you lose, you’re out’ type of mentality.”
Right now, the Irish mentality is on the task at hand — to put themselves in the best position to remain in the national conversation by the end of the season.
“I think every group starts the preseason very focused with a sense of purpose and urgency and I think the challenge is continuing to stay at that high level with training, that high level of focus, and make sure that we’re competing every day because every moment matters. We’re maintaining that high level to prepare us to continue to develop to the best of our ability by the end of the year. That’s going to be on the coaches, captains, leadership of the team to stay on each other to maintain that high standard that we’ve now laid out for ourselves in the preseason.”
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.