The season would later be described by two-time national coach of the year Chris Petrucelli as a season that “ended the way we all had dreamed about.” With the NCAA title wrestled away from nine-time defending champion North Carolina. With the BIG EAST Tournament title claimed from regular-season champ Connecticut.
The dream began with Notre Dame putting the opposition to sleep as the Irish outscored their opponents 36-0 on their way to an 8-0 record. The Irish started the year ushering in Notre Dame’s entrance into the BIG EAST Conference by participating in the first BIG EAST competition for any Notre Dame team. The Irish defeated the Lady Friars of Providence in that inaugural game on Sept. 2 at Alumni Field.
The next day, Notre Dame upped its record to 2-0 with another conference win over St. John’s. Three shutouts against Big Ten foes Indiana, No. 13 Wisconsin and No. 19 Michigan State put the Irish at 5-0 with a matchup against No. 3 Stanford, a team they had never defeated.
The Irish ended their losing streak against the Cardinal and extended their winning streak to six games with a 1-0 win. Two more BIG EAST wins over Rutgers and Seton Hall and Notre Dame was sleepwalking through 1995, yet to give up a goal and outshooting its opponents 192-24.
Notre Dame’s brilliant play suddenly and inexplicably turned nightmarish as the Irish struggled through a 2-2-2 slump. Following the eight consecutive victories, Notre Dame traveled to Cincinnati where the Bearcats led 2-1 until Julie Maund tied the game with a goal at 88:17. After a scoreless overtime, Notre Dame had its perfect record tarnished with the 2-2 tie. Notre Dame used another late goal to knot the score and another in overtime against Ohio State as the Irish squeaked out a 2-1 win.
Notre Dame returned home for a showdown against fifth-rated and BIG EAST rival Connecticut. For the third consecutive game, the Irish needed a goal in the last eight minutes to tie the game. Monica Gerardo scored from six yards out off of a pass from Holly Manthei to tie that game at 3-3. However, Connecticut scored two goals before Gerardo scored on a penalty kick in the last minute. This time the Irish fell short as the Huskies won a 5-4 thriller over the Irish. The loss marked the first for Notre Dame at home since Oct. 4, 1992, and the first by the Irish in 29 conference matches.
After a 1-0 win over No. 7 Santa Clara, the grueling six-game span would mercifully conclude, but not until after games in Houston against No. 11 Duke and No. 1 North Carolina. Against the Blue Devils, the Irish were in an all-too-familiar predicament, trailing by a goal late in the game. Once again, Notre Dame sent the game into overtime, as Amy VanLaecke scored off of a clear at the 89:26 mark to knot the score at 2-2, which is how it would remain after the fourth overtime in five games for Notre Dame.
The Irish headed into the rematch with powerful North Carolina having yielded 10 goals in the last five games and the Tar Heels took advantage of the spotty Irish defense in the 2-0 win.
Their dream season was somehow deteriorating into a scary nightmare. After an 8-0 start, the Irish were now 10-2-2 and, after being outscored 12-11 in the last six games, their defense was betraying them. Petrucelli and his team were fortunate to pinpoint the weakness in their play.
“At that point of the season, we had lost our focus on defending,” said Petrucelli. “We got so carried away in trying to score goals that we forgot that there was another part of the game. When we got our focus back to defending, we were very good at it.”
After the loss to North Carolina, the Irish were indeed very good defensively, giving up just three goals in the final 11 games of the season, including a remarkable post-season in which Notre Dame shut out six consecutive opponents.
“We identified the problem as the way our team was defending, not any particular individuals. We put a lot of work into our team defense the last six weeks of the season. When you talk about our teams in the past, we usually score a lot of goals. We’ve never been a team that gives up many goals but at the beginning of the season we lost our focus on defending.”
The next big test for the refocused Irish was a rematch against Connecticut in the BIG EAST Tournament finals. The game would be a test as to how far they had come since the earlier loss. It would also prove to be a gauge for their chances in the NCAA tournament.
After giving up five goals to Connecticut in their first meeting, the Irish used a strong defensive performance to blank the Huskies 1-0 to claim the BIG EAST Tournament title. Notre Dame also got a shot of confidence and momentum heading into the NCAA tournament.
“The win over Connecticut really helped our confidence and made us believe in what we were doing,” said Petrucelli. “We were able to refocus ourselves as a group and commit ourselves to everything we needed to do to win. Up until that game, we had talked about winning but we were not doing everything that it took to win.”
The BIG EAST title helped Notre Dame garner a No. 4 seed into the NCAA tournament with a first-round bye and a second-round contest against No. 18 Wisconsin at Alumni Field. The two teams met on Sept. 10 in a 1-0 Irish win. The game rematch was no contest as the Irish used four first-half goals and a Shannon Boxx hat trick for a 5-0 win.
Notre Dame met Connecticut in the NCAA third round, marking the first time Notre Dame had played an opponent on three occasions in one season. The Huskies returned to Alumni Field, the scene of their 5-4 win in the first meeting. Notre Dame continued the excellent defense that it exhibited in the BIG EAST finals against Connecticut as it held the Huskies scoreless for the second straight game in a 2-0 win. Goals by Julie Vogel and Amy VanLaecke sent the Irish into the semifinals against host and nine-time defending champion North Carolina.
Ahead of Notre Dame would be the seemingly impossible task of defeating the Tar Heels on their home field where they had lost just once. North Carolina had won nine consecutive NCAA titles and were riding a 31-game NCAA tournament winning streak. The Irish also had yet to score on the Tar Heels in four previous meetings and had been outscored in those games 10-0, including a 5-0 loss in the 1994 NCAA finals. All of these impressive credentials seemed insurmountable to everyone but the Irish team.
“There were only 24 people who thought we could win this game and they were all in this locker room,” said Petrucelli. “I don’t think anyone outside our team gave us a chance of winning.”
Notre Dame came out sharp and loose, pressuring the Tar Heels from the start of the game. This pressure led to the only goal of the contest just 19 minutes in the game. Tar Heel forward Cindy Parlow headed a Notre Dame cross out of the goal area from the right wing. Cindy Daws then headed it back toward the goal in the direction of Parlow. At 19:21, Parlow tried to head the ball back out again but the ball went into the Tar Heel goal for a North Carolina own goal.
“I was trying to get it back in the box as far as possible and put the keeper in a dangerous position,” said Daws. “Parlow just happened to stick her head in the way.”
A stunned crowd of 7, 212, the largest ever to watch a collegiate women’s soccer game, watched the final 70 minutes of the semifinal as the Irish defense, in contrast to the first meeting earlier in the season, shut down the potent Tar Heel offense. The victory was the first 1-0 win over any North Carolina team and sent Notre Dame into the NCAA finals for the second consecutive season.
Petrucelli was determined that his team would not have a letdown in the finals against Portland.
“We didn’t come here to beat North Carolina,”
Petrucelli would stress to his team. “We came here to win a national championship.”
Against Portland, after 90 minutes of regulation, two-15 minute overtime periods and five minutes in sudden death overtime, Daws was again the catalyst. After Michelle McCarthy was fouled outside of the box, Daws quick-kicked the direct kick past the Portland goalkeeper to end the exhausting game and Notre Dame’s dreamlike run to the title.
“The win over North Carolina was a great experience for us and great for our program but the win over Portland was a lot more important because that meant we won the national championship,” said Petrucelli. “The Portland win was the biggest win of the season.”
“For a long time we had talked about winning a national championships and we finally did it,” said Petrucelli. “It was a great learning experience for us because the season was not all roses. It was a season where we had some ups and downs and where we lost a couple of games.
“The thing that came out of it was that we found out how much character our team really had. When we had that stretch where we lost and tied a couple of games, instead of packing it in, we fought back. By the end of the year, we were a much better team than we were earlier in the year. We probably improved more during the year than any team I have ever coached.
“It was a great experience for us and a great character and confidence builder for us. 1995 was definitely something that can only help us in 1996.”