Oct. 20, 2006

By Pete LaFleur

The Notre Dame women’s soccer program has maintained several traditions during more than a decade of excellence that stretches back to the mid-1990s, when the 1995 team claimed the program’s first national championship. Those various traditions have come to include regular runs at the national title, domination of the BIG EAST Conference, multiple national player-of-the-year recipients, an ever-growing number of All-Americans, several players who have gone on to compete with various national teams, and an impressive list of academic accomplishments.

But there is one other traditional aspect of the program that holds a special place in the heart of countless Notre Dame soccer players: the team’s pregame dancing ritual. In fact, “The team that dances together, stays together” probably could serve as a slogan for Notre Dame women’s soccer during the past 10 years.

The “dance before you play” philosophy fittingly is led by members of the eight-player senior class, a group of individuals who already have left an endearing legacy on the tradition of Notre Dame women’s soccer.

“I’ve been around the game of soccer for many years and there are different ways for players to get psyched up for a game,” says Randy Waldrum, whose first eight Notre Dame teams have combined for an .859 winning percentage that includes 155 wins, just 23 losses and six ties.

“The dancing already was a part of the pregame routine when I arrived here in ’99 and – I must admit – it took a little while for me to get used to it. But the results speak for themselves, particularly for this great senior class now leading the team. They are able to do their dance and get excited. But when the time comes, they flip that switch and it’s all business. It’s a very exciting group to be around, game-in and game-out, I’ll certainly give them that.”

The senior class – which impressively has yet to allow the Irish to be out-shot in a game during their four seasons – carries a 81-7-3 career record (.907) that represents the second-best four-year winning percentage in nearly 20 seasons of Notre Dame women’s soccer. Only North Carolina, which won the NCAA title in 2003, currently has a senior class with more career wins – but Notre Dame’s 61-4-2 record from 2004-06 leads all of Division I women’s soccer.

Each member of the senior class has provided her unique contributions to the program’s success. Four of them – midfielders Jen Buczkowski and Jill Krivacek and defenders Kim Lorenzen and Christie Shaner – have been starters for most of their career, with Buczkowski collecting most of the honors as a two-time All-American. The others – Reed, Iarocci, midfielder Claire Gallerano and goalkeeper Nikki Westfall – have been just as important to the program’s all-around excellence, even extending to the team’s various community service activities that are organized by Gallerano.

“We are so thankful to have such great senior leadership. They make practices fun and it’s not as stressful, because we know that we aren’t going to get screamed at by the seniors,” says junior forward Amanda Cinalli, who combines with sophomores Kerri Hanks and Brittany Bock and freshman Michele Weissenhofer to give the Irish a high-powered – and young – group of offensive players.

“We know that the seniors are going to be encouraging as teammates and they always are fun to be around. They are people that you can talk to about anything and they have great perspective on things. With how close they are as a class, you think that would be enough for them but they branch out and are welcoming to the whole team. There’s no class division at all, which makes all the success we have even more special.”

And there’s more to this senior group than just winning games … and dancing … and working in the community. They take their schoolwork very seriously, with a 3.44 combined cumulative grade-point average that includes all eight players checking in at 3.2 or higher.

Most followers of the Notre Dame women’s soccer program trace the team’s dancing tradition back to the 1996 season, when free-spirited goalkeeper LaKeysia Beene arrived on the scene. The California native began leading her teammates in pregame “dancefests” around the locker room and it certainly had no ill effects on the results, as that ’96 team steamrolled its opponents by a 140-17 scoring margin en route to finishing as the NCAA runner-up

The unique activity picked up steam the following season when defender Kelly “Boof” Lindsey added her personal flair to the mix – allowing the tradition to carry on into Lindsey’s senior season, when Notre Dame’s 2000 team owned the No. 1 ranking and did not suffer a loss until the NCAA semifinals.

Fast forward to 2006 and the return of another player from the early years of this decade. South Bend native Lindsey Jones, who emerged as a top outside back for the Irish before graduating in 2002, is back at her alma mater serving as the team’s volunteer assistant coach. Much to her surprise, Jones discovered that Beene’s spirit lives on with the members of the senior class and their dancing craze.

“I couldn’t help but laugh when I realized the dancing still was going on,” says Jones, who coached the previous season at Northwestern. “Players like ‘Keysia’ and ‘Boof’ are teammates that you never forget. Not only were they great players but also great personalities. I’m sure they’re glad to know that their tradition has carried on.”

Senior forwards Lizzie Reed and Molly Iarocci typically serve as ringleaders of the dancing routines, quickly stoking the fire that gets the pregame excitement rolling. As it turns out, the team’s “bonding through dancing” gained strength during the ’04 training trip to Brazil, a preseason experience that would play a key role in the 2004 team’s national-championship season.

“When we went to Brazil, two of the seniors, Melissa Tancredi and Candace Chapman, brought all sorts of music and we started dancing to it in the hotel gym,” recalls Iarocci, who followed in the footsteps of her father Tony (a former Irish baseball catcher) by becoming a student-athlete at Notre Dame.

“Candace had one song called ‘Celebrate,’ it was this neat Jamaican ‘soca’ song. We all would dance really funny to it and we made it our song for that entire season.”

There would be plenty of celebrating throughout the ’04 season and each game was preceded by dancing to the “Celebrate” song. The dancing would take place before the coaches entered the locker room, with the team whirling around in a circle as different individuals danced their unique jigs in the middle.

Two years later, the dancing carries on with a new collection of songs. The wins keep piling up as well: since departing for the Brazil trip in ’04, the Irish have won a total of 79 times, lost just four and tied four (with those totals including a handful of spring and fall preseason games). The Irish again sit atop the national polls, racing out to a 14-0-1 start that has included a dominating 50-3 scoring edge.

“The dancing is something that lightens everyone up and gets us going. It hypes you up in a good way and that’s why we like to do it,” says Iarocci. “The freshmen already have a song they like to dance to … so it looks like the tradition is all set to carry on.”

The team’s proclivity for pregame dancing is all the more noteworthy when checking back in with the Irish a couple hours later, after that day’s game has come to an end. Nine times out of 10 – and, in some cases, closer to 100 percent – the Irish are doing a different kind of dance, in celebration of victory.

Notre Dame’s sustained success during the past few years can be traced in large part to the leadership of the senior class, a group whose spirit lit up the program from the days of their first arrival in the late summer of 2003. The rookie class – which, at the time, numbered 10 players – all showed up early prior to the official start of preseason drills. It didn’t take long for the freshman bonding to begin, as all 10 crammed into a local hotel room while riding to campus on bikes in order to start training for their upcoming college career.

“From those first days, you could see the personality of the group flowing out – which is something that I think you will see from the current freshmen, as well,” says Iarocci, who admits that she and her classmates have long been talking about future reunions and being in each other’s wedding parties.

“We were so close when we came in as freshmen, right from the start. The amazing thing is that we were from all over the country and you had a lot of different personalities – but we completely meshed.

“Now that we are seniors, our friendship just keeps getting stronger. The end of our careers will be bittersweet, but it’s really cool that you can come away from college knowing that you have seven best friends.”