May 26, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — A transition period in most realms, sports, business, life, inevitably brings change. Whether philosophical or strategic, change will almost always occur when a new order is introduced.
For University of Notre Dame women’s soccer head coach Theresa Romagnolo, her first season on the Fighting Irish sideline seemed to move at hyper speed. Officially hired mere days before the team’s opening exhibition match last spring, Romagnolo got to know her team in live motion.
The birth of her second daughter on the eve of Notre Dame reporting for 2014 preseason camp added another wrinkle to Romagnolo’s journey. When life and profession converged on the same road, the new Fighting Irish mentor responded in a way she has throughout her soccer career, with success.
Notre Dame posted a 14-6-2 (.682) record during the 2014 campaign in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), a league that ultimately boasted the national runner-up in Virginia and national champion Florida State among its six NCAA Championship qualifiers. The 11th ranked Fighting Irish reached the third round of the NCAA Championship for the 18th time, further cementing Notre Dame’s legacy as one of the top women’s soccer programs in the sport’s history.
There was much to be proud of, and many lessons learned, for the Notre Dame team during Romagnolo’s first season on campus.
“Overall I thought we had a very good season,” Romagnolo said. “I felt we improved over the course of the year, and I felt we started to become more of a cohesive group and played well together. We had different individuals over the course of the season step up and really grow, and as a coach the goal is always to get the most out of the group. I’m proud of this past group from the fall season for that, we grew. When we stepped into the ACC season, we only got better. We learned good lessons early on in the ACC season, and when you look at postseason play we were ready.”
After a 2-2 start out of the gate could have stalled momentum entirely, one particular road trip and a pair of historic results over top 25 foes got Notre Dame rolling.
“Every team is trying to find its identity at the beginning of a season,” Romagnolo said. “We had a few players gone with the (United States) U20s, and they were in and out of the roster at the beginning of the season. Coming out of our home tournament weekend and going out to California to play Santa Clara and Stanford, we really showed our resiliency at that point against two top teams. We showed our ability to go out and get results, to do the work, bring the grit, and also bring the quality.”
After downing Santa Clara 2-0 on Sept. 5 to earn just the second win in program history in eight tries at Buck Shaw Stadium (along with a 2-1 triumph on Sept. 21, 2003), Notre Dame took No. 4 Stanford to the limit two days later. A 0-0 draw in Palo Alto capped the Fighting Irish West Coast swing with the team’s first decision in four all-time matches against the Cardinal at Cagan Stadium, a venue where Romagnolo flourished as Stanford’s top assistant coach from 2008-10.
“That was a huge weekend for us in California because it propelled us into the rest of the season,” Romagnolo said. “We had the talent, we had lots of experience this past season, and the key was bringing that mental toughness. In the beginning of the year we still weren’t sure who we were going to be, and in California we found that grit for the rest of the year.”
Following a 7-2-1 (.750) ACC regular season mark that helped Notre Dame earn its 22nd consecutive NCAA Championship bid, the Fighting Irish clawed out a gritty 1-0 home victory over Valparaiso during the first round of the NCAA Championship in November. Romagnolo’s first career postseason victory as a head coach set the stage for a trip to College Station, Texas, for the NCAA tournament’s second and third rounds.
Though Notre Dame’s run ultimately ended in the final 16 against Texas A&M the Fighting Irish put the team’s collective spirit on full display, and provided a glimpse into the future.
“In the second round we clawed our way back from being down to Texas (a 1-0 deficit to a 2-1 win) and showed great character,” Romagnolo said. “We showed resilience. We faced Texas A&M in the sweet 16, and that’s a game where in my opinion we could have won against a number one seed.
“We played with the best of them last year and showed we can be a contender, and now the expectations are to be one of the best teams in the country next year,” she added. “What you saw in the spring season was a team that is very experienced, who brings a lot of talent back, and those seniors are excited and motivated to achieve a lot going into their final season.”
Among the leaders of the senior class are returning captains Katie Naughton and Cari Roccaro, who will be joined in leadership by classmate and fellow tri-captain Glory Williams. Naughton and Roccaro have become stalwarts at the youth level of the United States Women’s National Team system, with Roccaro currently in Norway training with the U.S. U-23 WNT for an upcoming Four Nations tournament that will be played May 27-31.
Also in the mix at the national team level for Notre Dame is sophomore-to-be defender Sabrina Flores and incoming freshman forward Natalie Jacobs with the U.S. U20 team, sophomore Monica Flores working her way up the ladder in the Mexico U20 program, and junior Rilka Noel with the Haitian National Team.
Seeking out, and developing, players to compete on soccer’s highest level is what drives the Fighting Irish coaching staff on the recruiting trail.
“It’s always our goal to recruit players off the national team, and when they’re here we want to continue to develop players for future national teams,” Romagnolo said. “One thing it does for us is it continues to raise the level of our training environment. We have players who are prepping to go to camps, and when they’re at these camps they are playing against the best players in their country. They continue to push their game at the national team camps, and when they come back it makes everyone around them better because of their motivation, drive and the quality they bring to the field.
“That’s what we want here at Notre Dame. We want to recruit the players who have aspirations of being on those national teams and want to play beyond on pro teams, that’s what this program is about.”
Jacobs is among a six-player freshman class that will look to make its mark in the Notre Dame lineup in 2015. Six different freshmen saw regular minutes on the field for the Fighting Irish last season, with Sabrina Flores emerging from the pack as a member of the all-ACC and Top Drawer Soccer Best XI freshman teams in 2014.
Romagnolo’s goal remains what it has been throughout her head coaching career that began at Dartmouth in 2011. Each time Notre Dame takes the field it will feature the best lineup of 11 players that the Fighting Irish have to offer, with age a minimal concern.
“We are always looking to play the best 11 and the best players off the bench, regardless of age,” Romagnolo said. “When you look at this freshman class in terms of size, it’s a small to medium class with a lot of quality within that group. We can never forecast who necessarily will come in and have an immediate impact because it’s up to them to prove that in the preseason, just as it is for the returners.
“We improved upon what we accomplished in the fall, and what’s exciting for me is that same group will be back this fall,” she added. “They’ve played together all through the spring, and we have great freshmen that are going to challenge for minutes. I’m excited to see what happens.”
As Romagnolo continues her first full offseason as the helm of the Notre Dame program, her direction remains as clear as when she assumed her role in March of 2014. Continue to learn, continue to grow, continue to win.
“It is a learning experience when you jump into a new program and a new league,” Romagnolo said. “The great thing about the ACC is it’s probably the best league in the country, and (with the conference alignment) a crazy thing is that each season we don’t play the same opponents. Looking ahead to this season we need to make sure we will be prepared for every weekend, along with getting adequate rest and recovery because sometimes the travel can be difficult. It’s a long season, so we need to make sure we prepare ourselves and stay focused. We want to approach it all in a way that is going to prepare us to be playing in December.”
— Tony Jones, Media Relations Assistant