Oct. 30, 2004

By Pete LaFleur

Prior to the 2004 soccer season, the Notre Dame men’s and women’s teams were featured on the annual promotional posters. One poster carries the slogan “Good to Great” and includes the veteran members of the Irish women’s team. Another poster carries the motto “Staying in the Spotlight” and showcases the returners for the Irish men’s team.

And with postseason play just around the corner, the combined slogan for Notre Dame soccer could be “Double Trouble” – as it would be hard to argue that any school in the nation currently boasts a hotter pair of soccer programs. Both Irish teams are on the brink of national-title greatness … and both certainly are in the spotlight.

“We want to be known as a top soccer school and every success for the men and the women adds to that,” says Mike Avery, in his fifth overall season as an assistant coach with the Notre Dame men’s soccer program (only women’s head coach Randy Waldrum has been at Notre Dame longer, among the coaching staffs for both teams).

“What’s most impressive with the women is how they’ve stayed on top, with a young team and that big target on their back. The men’s program here at Notre Dame is climbing that ladder. We’re just trying to keep up with the women and I think both programs are very much respected throughout the country.”

The Irish women – now No. 2 in the national rankings after six weeks in the top spot – have lost just once in their last 40 regular-season games (37-1-2) while the men (12-2-2) currently are No. 5 in the NSCAA coaches poll and have clinched their first-ever BIG EAST Conference regular-season title. Together, the Notre Dame men’s and women’s soccer teams have combined for more wins (29-2-3) than any other school in Division I. Only two others – Virginia (28-4-1) and North Carolina-Greensboro (27-4-2) – had reached more than 25 combined wins (as of Oct. 28) while Notre Dame and Virginia were the only schools with their men’s and women’s teams in at least the top eight of the Oct. 25 NSCAA coaches polls. UCLA was the only other school with both its teams in the top 15 of the NSCAA polls while six others (Washington, Penn State, Maryland, Boston College, Duke and Santa Clara) have both teams somewhere in the top 25.

Notre Dame also has won both the men’s and women’s 2004 BIG EAST regular-season soccer titles, with a combined record of 16-1-1 in conference play. Connecticut, in 1998, is the only other school ever to post the best BIG EAST men’s and women’s soccer records in the same regular season (excluding ties in the standings).

Both of the Notre Dame soccer teams have been on a roll as of late, particularly on the defensive end. The men are riding an 8-0-1 streak (16-1 scoring edge) while the women have racked up a 24-3 scoring margin over their last 10 games, yielding a 40-4 combined scoring margin in the past month that only adds to Notre Dame’s case for being the “best soccer school in the nation.”

The robust nature of each program goes beyond won-loss records and national polls. Waldrum and his counterpart, fourth-year men’s head coach Bobby Clark, are widely considered to be on the short list when discussing the nation’s top coaches. In fact, Notre Dame was the only school that saw both its men’s and women’s soccer coaches honored as NSCAA regional coaches of the year for the 2003 season.

Waldrum (111-19-5) and Clark (52-18-9) have combined to win nearly 80 percent of their games at Notre Dame and the next win by either team will signal the 500th win in Waldrum and Clark’s combined careers as college head coaches (499-205-58, .693). Waldrum’s 23-year college coaching career (294-124-23) includes previous stints at Tulsa (where he coached the men’s and women’s teams) and Baylor while Clark also enjoyed great success in previous stops at Dartmouth and Stanford (he is 205-81-34 in 18 college seasons).

Each of the Irish teams also has fortified its roster with top-ranked recruiting classes and elite-level players, many of them standouts with various national team programs.

The current Notre Dame women’s soccer roster includes four straight classes that have been ranked among the top-15 recruiting classes (14th in ’01, 9th in ’02, 5th in ’03, 2nd in ’04), with Virginia and North Carolina representing the only other women’s teams that can make that claim. The Notre Dame women also join Texas as the only schools with top-5 recruiting classes each of the past two seasons.

The Irish men’s program also has emerged as a regular on the list of the nation’s top recruiting classes, with each of the past four seasons seeing the Notre Dame men’s classes ranked 18th or higher (18th in ’01, 14th in ’02, 5th in ’03 and 11th in ’04). Only four other schools – perennial powers Indiana, SMU, UCLA and Virginia – can make such a claim of recruiting class success during the past four seasons.

Nine current members of the Notre Dame women’s program have been active with various national teams, including senior forward/defender Candace Chapman and fifth-year central defender Melissa Tancredi as starters with Canada’s full national team. Chapman and junior forward Katie Thorlakson also have been standouts with Canada’s Under-19 National Team. Four other Irish players – junior midfielder Annie Schefter, senior forward Mary Boland, sophomore midfielder Jen Buczkowski and forward Kerri Hanks – have been starters with the U.S. Under-19s (Hanks currently is training for the Under-19 World Championship and will enroll at ND next semester) while senior central back Gudrun Gunnarsdottir is a standout with Iceland’s national team and freshman midfielder/forward Jannica Tjeder has been a regular with Finland’s Under-17, -19 and -21 teams.

The Irish men’s program includes three members of the sophomore class – defender Greg Dalby, midfielder/forward Nate Norman and midfielder Ian Etherington – who were top players on the U.S. Under-18 National Team, with Dalby and Norman now members of the U.S. Under-20 squad. One of their classmates, defender Jorge Schippes, also has starred on the national-team stage as a member of Guatemala’s Under-17 and Under-20 national teams.

A survey of the Notre Dame soccer rosters reveals that both programs are stocked with former Olympic Development Program standouts. Both teams currently include 25 non-foreign players, with 19 members of the Irish women’s squad being former ODP state players while the ND men’s team includes 17 state ODP products. The current ND women’s roster also includes 14 players who starred for elite ODP Region teams while eight such players currently star for the Irish men’s team.

The Notre Dame student body truly is a national (and international) sampling and that holds true with the various athletic teams. Notre Dame’s student-athlete population in 2002-03 included nearly 800 individuals from 47 states (all but Idaho, Mississippi, Nevada) and 20 foreign countries.

The 2004 rosters for the Irish men’s and women’s soccer teams touch all corners of the United States while also including players from Canada, England, Finland, Guatemala and Iceland. The current Irish soccer players hail from 20 different states, with both teams including players from California, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Texas. Other states represented by the current Notre Dame soccer teams include: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin.

Both Irish teams also are coming off stellar 2003 seasons, as the ND women were ranked No. 2 for most of `03 while the men earned the highest ranking (No. 3) in the program’s history.

Notre Dame also joined North Carolina as the only schools with multiple players on the preseason watch lists for both the men’s and women’s MAC Hermann Trophy, presented to the national player of the year. Tancredi and Chapman were included on the women’s watch list while senior goalkeeper Chris Sawyer and senior defender Jack Stewart were included on the men’s list.

The first five seasons of the Waldrum era (’99-’03) were marred by injuries to key players, some lost for an entire season and others at crucial postseason junctures. An 18-0-1 start in 2003 was overshadowed by a 2-3-0 slide, as the Irish were unable to overcome late injuries to All-Americans Amy Warner and Tancredi (on top of the season-long absence of injured standout and ’02 All-American Chapman).

The lessons of the past combine with the challenge of the present and the promise of the future in driving the current ND women’s soccer team. An eight-foot sign atop Grace Hall was lit every night in celebration of the team’s No. 1 ranking and a No. 1 flag waved proudly in front of the Joyce Center. But Waldrum and his players – already playing without four injured players for most of the ’04 season – refuse to get tripped up by their own hype, focusing on each approaching game with a larger goal at the end of the tunnel.

“Even with the players who are out for us, this team has tremendous depth and that has allowed us to use different lineups while resting the key players at certain times,” says Waldrum, who has circled 19 different players as starters in 2004 (led by 17 who have started five-plus games).

“The team has been very focused on the pace of this season and the team goals. It’s a very driven group and they are so enjoyable to coach.”

The Irish women have been boosted by a preseason training trip to Brazil and by the decisions of two top players – sophomore midfielder Jen Buczkowski and junior forward Katie Thorlakson – to remain at Notre Dame for the entire fall rather than playing in the Under-19 World Championship. Buczkowski would have missed all of Notre Dame’s season while training with the U.S. team while Thorlakson was slated to miss the first three weeks of NCAA Tournament play, as a member of Canada’s team.

Second-year Notre Dame assistant Dawn Greathouse – who played for Waldrum at Baylor – credits the Irish head coach with setting the tone.

“Randy definitely is different now as a coach than from when I played for him,” says Greathouse, who helped Baylor become one of the nation’s top new programs in the mid-’90s.

“The ‘Good to Great’ philosophy reflects the high standards that Randy has set. He is a not a coach who yells a lot and he respects the team as players and as people. And that commands respect back. You want to do the best for him and don’t want to let him down,. That’s how I felt and that’s how it is now for the current players.”

Greathouse played in the WUSA alongside two former ND greats – the free-spirited duo of LaKeysia Beene and Kelly Lindsey – so she had some familiarity with the Irish program.

“I knew that Notre Dame as a whole demanded excellence and I knew there would be extremely hard-working people here,” she says.

“But I did not expect to be able to work with a team that is so competitive but also has so much fun, on and off the field. If you lose that perspective, you get away from a great part of soccer and team sports. I really think the closeness of this team and their ability to enjoy the whole process are huge factors in their success.”

The success of a soccer team often is defined by its “spine” and the 2004 Notre Dame women’s soccer team has proven to have the top forward (Thorlakson), midfielder (Buczkowski), defender (Tancredi) and goalkeeper (Erika Bohn) in the BIG EAST.

Thorlakson entered the week ranked 6th on the national scoring charts and became the first Irish player to post 14-plus goals (14) and 14-plus assists (15) in the regular season (all-time great Cindy Daws and Jenny Streiffer are the only previous ND players to earn that distinction). Buczkowski (7G-8A) has elevated her own goalscoring to go along with tremendous possession and playmaking skills from the central midfield position. Tancredi is the leader of a Notre Dame defense that could prove to be the best all-around unit in the program’s history. The All-American has combined with senior central defender Gudrun Gunnarsdottir and sophomore outside backs Christie Shaner and Kim Lorenzen to help the Irish allow just 10 goals (0.55 goals-against average), 108 total shots (6.0 per game), 53 shots on goal (2.9/gm) and 33 corner kicks (1.8/gm) during the 2004 season. The battle-tested backline starters also have combined to play 213 career games with the Irish, logging 170 starts between them.

The Irish women entered the week as one of four teams in the nation ranked in the top-25 for scoring (22nd, now 2.63 goals per game) and goals-against avg. (16th, now 0.55). Chapman has totaled 9G-6A after shifting to forward while freshman Amanda Cinalli (7G-5A) also has helped overcome the loss of senior leader Mary Boland, who suffered a broken leg early in the ’04 season.

While the Notre Dame women have been earning the attention that goes with the top ranking, the Irish men have overcome the graduation of a stellar senior class to remain among the nation’s top programs. Three members of the current senior class – Sawyer, Stewart and fellow defender Kevin Goldthwaite (whose return from injury sparked the current 8-0-1 run) – have been four-year standouts and now look to lead the program to greater heights.

“The five guys in our senior class have stepped in as great leaders and the team has not missed a beat,” says Avery. “That senior class from last season took us form mid-level to elite status and now these guys want to build on even more.”

The veteran defensive core – which also includes Dalby and senior Chris High – has combined to allow just seven goals this season, placing Notre Dame second in the nation with a 0.42 goals-against average.

The Notre Dame returners accounted for just three of the team’s 38 goals in 2003, with graduated forwards Justin Detter and Devon Prescod combining for 26 of those goals. The current squad has relied on a deeper group of goalscorers, led by sophomore Justin McGeeney (5G-1A) and junior Tony Megna (5G) as the new pair of starting frontrunners. Freshman Joe Lapira (2G-2A) also has added a spark to the Irish attack while Etherington (3G-5A) andsenior Luke Boughen (2G-4A) have impacted the offense from their midfield positions.

Avery credits Clark’s coaching style with setting the tone for the Notre Dame men’s soccer program.

“Bobby was a great fit for Notre Dame because he is such a tremendous teacher of the game,” says Avery. “Bobby sees himself as a teacher who is wearing shorts. He is very patient coach who also values having a good time. He always finds ways to enjoy the game of a soccer and we laugh a lot … but we also work very hard.”

Waldrum – the first three-time recipient of the BIG EAST women’s soccer coach-of-the-year award – counts himself among Clark’s biggest fans.

“Bobby’s teams are so organized and disciplined and he has stuck to a style of play that works great with his players,” says Waldrum.

“Any discussion of the best coaches in the country has to include Bobby in the mix.

“And I certainly think Notre Dame is near the top, if not at the top, of the list of the nation’s best all-around soccer school. One nice thing is that our staffs and players are so cooperative and get along great with each other, because that’s not always the case.

“We all are so proud to be part of this great Notre Dame soccer tradition.”