- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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CARY, N.C. -- There was a moment this fall when Elizabeth Tucker realized she didn't belong in her new surroundings at Notre Dame. The unheralded freshman, who hadn't been on the recruiting radar for the Fighting Irish, who had to pitch herself to one of the most successful programs in college soccer, looked around and understood she had gone to the wrong place.
And so she did what anyone in such a state of dawning panic might. She ran -- down the hallway, to the right room for her calculus exam.
"I'd heard all these horror stories about people missing their first test," Tucker said, a touch of chagrin still evident 2½ months after her more-exhilarating-than-planned first college test. "I was so confident that I had taken every precaution that wouldn't happen to me."
Having realized midway through the test that it was for the wrong level of calculus, a predicament helped along when a substitute professor announced he would be administering the proceedings, she raced to the right room. Then she raced to make the team bus as it departed for a game at DePaul -- a game in which she scored both goals in a 2-0 win.
As it turns out, there has never been any doubt that the third-leading scorer for the Notre Dame squad playing for the national championship Sunday (ESPN2, noon ET), the person who scored both goals in the team's quarterfinal win on the road against Oklahoma State, is in the right place when it comes to soccer.
Fighting Irish coach Randy Waldrum didn't know exactly what he was getting in giving the daughter of Notre Dame alums the chance she wanted, but some good deeds are rewarded.
"For us, it was more of giving her an opportunity," Waldrum said. "We thought she had enough talent to help our program, and with the family legacy at Notre Dame, we certainly wanted to give her the opportunity. But she's completely exceeded everything we expected out of her."
While the Notre Dame name might not open all the doors it once did in football, it's still the gold standard of soccer recruiting. Typical are freshmen like Adriana Leon, a member of the Canadian Under-20 national team, and Mandy Laddish, ranked No. 26 among incoming freshmen by Top Drawer Soccer and a member of the U.S. youth national team that played in the 2008 Under-17 World Cup. With such extensive competitive experience and polished résumés before they even get to South Bend, it's not surprising that such players are often able to step in and contribute immediately (as Laddish did in dramatic fashion Friday, scoring the game winner in the 83rd minute).
Tucker, on the other hand, was an all-state athlete in high school in Florida -- but in cross country, not soccer. And she was ranked first on a scholastic list -- but it was academic rankings for her class at Bishop Kenny High School. She was the captain of her club soccer team, but the Jacksonville Fury were not nationally dominant. Nonetheless, her club coach, Marc Osterberger, thought she belonged among the elite.
"I really had no idea what kind of college I could play for, but my club coach encouraged me to just try and go to the best college I possibly could and thought I had the potential to play for a school like Notre Dame," Tucker said. "I didn't necessarily believe him when he told me that, but especially with my parents' encouragement, I said, 'Why not? Notre Dame's a great school, both academically and for soccer.' So I just really tried to get on their radar as much as I could, which is pretty difficult."
She called and e-mailed Waldrum as often as she could to try to get on that radar, and caught a lucky break when her club team ended up playing a game against the Trinidad and Tobago youth team Waldrum coached. It wasn't blind pursuit on her part; she also considered some SEC and Ivy League schools, and admitted it took a bit of soul searching to come to terms with the idea of going somewhere where, even in the best-case scenario, she might not play much for at least a couple of years. She didn't want to be Rudy; she wanted a chance to prove she was as talented as the typical Notre Dame player.
But once the Fighting Irish expressed interest, a final talk with Waldrum convinced her it was the right risk to take.
"I just really felt like he was going to be very objective, and I got a sense that if I worked hard and proved myself there, I would be able to play," Tucker said. "And I think after that phone conversation, I was ready to make a decision."
It didn't take her long to make an impression. Talking during a news conference before the semifinals, Waldrum mentioned that Tucker "blew away" the team's preseason conditioning tests. Sitting next to their coach, co-captains Lauren Fowlkes and Jessica Schuveiller looked at each other and shared a conspiratorial laugh. Waldrum wasn't exaggerating. Part of the conditioning is a mile-and-a-half run in a little less than 10 minutes. Where most players finish right around the target time, Tucker blazed through it in eight minutes, thinking to herself the whole time that this was a lot easier than most of the track races she ran in high school.
"It was unbelievable," Schuveiller recalled.
It didn't stop when a ball was introduced to the equation. Waldrum thought Tucker could help the team eventually, but the time frame shortened considerably once practice started.
"The process really kind of started with her contacting us and in some ways recruiting us," Waldrum said. "And then once we saw her play, quite honestly, she was one of those kids we looked at and said she covers a lot of ground and she's got this nonstop engine that we loved about her, but it was one of those that we came into this thinking that maybe as a freshman she'd give us some time and some minutes and be able to help us a little bit with some depth.
"But once we got her into preseason and she actually got onto the field, it didn't take us but a few days to go, 'Not only is this kid going to give us some minutes, but she needs to be playing a lot.' And by the end of the preseason, you're going, 'This kid is in your 11.'"
And she was, right from the first game of the season, helping fill a midfield void created when All-American Courtney Barg missed the first two months of the season with an injury. She admitted she was nervous in her debut against Minnesota, but by the time she scored her first college goal in Notre Dame's second game of the season, she felt like she belonged.
And as for that exam she arrived at halfway through the proceedings?
"I was on such an adrenaline rush that I finished on time," Tucker said.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
Elizabeth Tucker started the year as an unheralded recruit, but the Notre Dame freshman has had an immediate impact on the Irish, writes Graham Hays.