Nov. 27, 2000

By Pete LaFleur

Many followers of women’s college soccer wrote off Notre Dame and North Carolina at different stages during the past few months but both teams have made their annual return to the NCAA semifinals.

The Irish-making their sixth trip to the semifinals in the last seven seasons-head into their much-anticipated clash with the Tar Heels as the nation’s top-ranked team, cradling an undefeated record (23-0-1) after surviving a 2-1 overtime game with Santa Clara in last week’s quarterfinal round. Notre Dame lost five starters-three of them All-Americans-from the 1999 NCAA runner-up squad but the Irish have owned the top ranking since mid-September and have been buoyed by a defense that has allowed just eight goals all season.

North Carolina showed unprecedented signs of vulnerability by losing three regular-season games but the Tar Heels have been on a roll since their 1-0 loss at Wake Forest on Oct. 27, winning their last seven games by a combined margin of 28-2.

Second-year Notre Dame head coach Randy Waldrum-whose Irish teams have combined for an impressive 44-4-2 record-contends that North Carolina still sits atop the throne of women’s college soccer.

“I’ve said this all along, until somebody can beat Carolina a couple years in a row, they still are the team to beat,” said Waldrum, the leading candidate for national coach-of-the year honors this season. “It’s going to be a great battle.”

Notre Dame-which is one win shy of joining UNC as the only teams ever to reach 24 victories in multiple seasons (also in ’96)-has not trailed for 10 games and has faced just one deficit all season, for 28 minutes in an Oct. 13 game versus Boston College.

Notre Dame junior Liz Wagner has sparkled in the big games this season, collecting 38 saves and allowing just four goals in 11 games versus ranked opponents and/or in the postseason. Wagner-who leads the nation with an 0.32 goals-against average-never started a game during her first two seasons while backing up All-American LaKeysia Beene (now the Irish goalkeeper coach) and wasn’t even guaranteed the starting spot heading into preseason camp. But she has started all 24 games this season while playing 90 percent of the team’s minutes in near-flawless fashion.

“I’ve been saying all along that I think Liz Wagner is the best goalkeeper in the country this year. The fact that she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves has been kind of amazing to me,” says Waldrum of Wagner, who literally saved the day for the Irish with eight saves-many of them spectacular-in the win over SCU. “Everytime we have needed a big save, she has answered the bell.”

The Irish offense is led by a pair of seasoned veterans, with senior forward and Kennewick, Wash., native Meotis Erikson (13 goals, 12 assists) coming on strong in recent weeks to register three goals and five assists in six postseason games, including two game-winning goals and a pair of game-winning assists. Senior Anne Makinen-a top candidate for national player-of-the-year honors-is a key component in Notre Dame’s unique system of three central-based midfielders and leads the team in scoring with 14 goals and 15 assists. With 65 career goals and 56 assists, she still has a shot at becoming just the sixth player in Division I women’s soccer history to reach 60 goals and 60 assists in her career.

North Carolina and Notre Dame steadily built on their rivalry during the second half of the 1990s and rank 1-2 among many national records, including all-time NCAA Tournament winning percentage (the Irish are 23-6-1/.776 while UNC is 64-3-0/.955). UNC leads the ND series 7-2-2, including a 4-0-1 record in the last five games vs. the Irish.

Friday’s matchup will be the fifth in the NCAAs between ND-UNC, with the Tar Heels beating the Irish in the 1994, ’96 and ’99 title games. Notre Dame beat UNC in the 1995 NCAA semifinalist (1-0) and then beat Portland in the championship game (also 1-0) for what remains one of just three (out of 18) NCAA titles won by a team other than UNC (George Mason won in ’85 and Florida in ’98).

Just four of the previous ND-UNC games have been played at one of those team’s home fields, with Friday’s matchup representing the eighth neutral-site game in the series (UNC holds a 5-1-1 lead in those games but split with the Irish in a pair of games at Fetzer Field).

Notre Dame and UNC met at both ends of the 1999 season, with the Tar Heels rallying in the season opener for a goal in the closing minutes of regulation before winning in double overtime (3-2). Three months later, UNC topped the Irish 2-0 in the ’99 NCAA title game.

The first game of the series produced a 3-0 UNC win in ’93 (in Houston) but the rivalry immediately picked up steam on Oct. 2, 1994, when the Irish ended UNC’s 92-game winning streak with an 0-0 tie in a game played in St. Louis. UNC got revenge in the ’94 NCAA title game (5-0) and beat the Irish in a midseason game the next season (2-0, in Houston).

Six weeks after that 2-0 game, the teams met again in the NCAA semifinals (at UNC’s Fetzer Field) and an own goal sent Notre Dame on the championship game, where the Irish beat Portland in triple overtime (1-0) to claim the 1995 NCAA championship.

The Irish also beat UNC in the next meeting (2-1 OT, in Durham, N.C.) but the Tar Heels posted an overtime win of their own at the end of that season, again beating the Irish in the NCAA title game (1-0, at Santa Clara).

The 1997 and ’98 seasons represent the only seasons in the last eight (1993-2000) in which ND and UNC have not met in the NCAAs. The teams did play to a 2-2 tie in ’97 (at Notre Dame) while the Tar Heels post a 5-1 regular-season win over the Irish in ’98.