Classes started on Notre Dame’s campus this week, which means the fall sports season is already underway. The Irish soccer and volleyball teams all have tough tests early on as they try to rebound from a disappointing season overall last year.
Senior captain Dillon Powers will lead Notre Dame's midfield this season.
Notre Dame lost half of the back line defenders that carried the team to a 9-5-4 record in 2011. So far, that hasn’t caused much of a problem for the Irish in preseason games. They finished their three-game exhibition schedule Monday night with a 1-0 victory over Xavier at home. Earlier, they beat Northern Illinois 3-0 and tied a talented U-23 team from the Mexican club Chivas Guadalajara.
Irish coach Bobby Clark said this year’s team is much more focused on getting results, even if they have to win ugly. Last year he thought his team put on a good show, but came up short when it mattered most in closely-fought battles.
““It’s not figure skating where you get points for nice form and good style,” he said. “You’ve actually got to win games as well. We certainly got a lot of points last year for playing well and looking good, but we tied games that we should have won and we lost games we should have tied.”
The offensive half of the pitch is full of proven returning starters. Senior Ryan Finley, last year’s leading scorer, made the preaseason All-Big East squad and scored three goals in the exhibition matches. He connected with co-captain Dillon Powers on the first two against Northern Illinois. Powers said this season he’ll be trying to play more aggressive and the feed the ball to Finley as much as possible. Finley was an All-American as a sophomore at Duke, but took a step backward in production during his first season at Notre Dame a year ago.
“Having a year, and especially the spring, to play with each other has definitely been a big help and helped me a get a lot more comfortable with the guys,” he said. “I think our front six should be really, really dangerous this season.”
He’ll get a chance to face off against his former school Saturday night when Notre Dame opens the season against Duke in South Bend at 7:30 p.m.
The women’s team opened the 2012-13 athletic schedule last Friday night with a 1-0 loss to Wisconsin in Madison. The Badgers had only one shot on goal during the second half, but it found the back of the net and gave Notre Dame its first season-opening loss since 1999.
The Irish lost a trio of impact players from a season ago, headlined by two-time All-American Melissa Henderson. This year’s team is young, but full of talent after head coach Randy Waldrum pulled in the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the nation. He said he could have as many as seven freshmen in the starting lineup this year, and he thinks they’ll be ready to make another run at the College Cup.
““I think there is going to be enough talent to get us there,” Waldrum said. “A lot of people probably think I’m crazy because we’re so young. But I think talent-wise it’s there. Sometimes being young is good. They seem to be naïve to all of that.”
The top newcomers this season are freshman Cari Roccaro, who will be in Japan with the U-20 U.S. National Team for the first few weeks of the season, and goalkeeper Elyse Hight. Hight started her first college game against Wisconsin and made one save during the first half.
The Irish will rely on sophomore Lauren Bohaboy for the majority of their scoring to start the year. Bohaboy had six goals as a rookie a year ago. Waldrum said she scored about 75 percent of the team’s goals during their spring scrimmages. She said this year she was aiming to nab Big East Offensive Player of the Year honors as well a trip to the national title game.
Notre Dame will get a trial by fire Friday night when they start the season against No. 1 UCLA in Lincoln, Neb. Two days later they take on No. 4 Nebraska to finish their opening weekend round robin.
Head coach Debbie Brown said she was excited about the tough competition early because it gave her team a reason to stay focused during their preseason training.
“It’s high pace, we’re demanding a lot,” she said. “It’s pretty intense, but I feel like the team is responding well. The young players are learning the systems well and the veterans are doing a good job leading.”
The team, which finished 17-13 overall a year ago, was picked to finish third in the Big East in 2012 behind Marquette and Lousville, the league’s defending champs. Sophomore Jeni Houser made the preseason all-conference list. She led the Irish in digs and kills as a rookie. Brown said she expects the 6-foot-2 Houser to take another step forward this season.
“I think last year she was a little bit more one dimensional,” Brown said. “We used basically one set and she hit it so well that we just stayed with it all the time. I think right now she is much more versatile.”