Commentary

Irish complete turnaround with title

Originally Published: December 5, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

CARY, N.C. -- Perfection is a standard that invites failure. Measured against its uncompromising precision, a goalkeeper's game for the ages can vanish on the sole shot that eludes her. And a team's march toward soccer immortality can be halted by just the second goal it allows in more than a month.

[+] EnlargeMelissa Henderson
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeMelissa Henderson's ability to distract defenders gave Notre Dame's freshmen opportunities to score.

But the pursuit of perfection also invites the sublime, and it rewards success handsomely.

Notre Dame put the final exclamation point on a perfect postseason in a 1-0 win against previously undefeated Stanford in the national championship game at WakeMed Soccer Park. It did so by playing a perfect defensive game against perhaps the best player in the nation and getting a flawless 90 minutes from a player making her own case for a title less tangible than the trophy she and her teammates clasped Sunday.

The Fighting Irish won because Melissa Henderson was the best player on the field on this day, and because their defense made sure Christen Press never had an opportunity to be.

All of which meant that in the end, a team that wasn't the best in the Big East during the regular season is unquestionably the best team in the country at the end of the postseason.

Notre Dame eliminated two-time defending champion and top-seeded North Carolina 4-1 in the Sweet 16, the first time the Tar Heels had lost at home by more than one goal in more than 600 games. The Irish became the third team to reach the College Cup after back-to-back road wins against higher seeds by beating No. 2 Oklahoma State 2-0 in Stillwater in the Elite Eight. And they became the first team to beat Stanford since last season's championship game, a span of 26 games. With apologies to Notre Dame's coach, it was an upset, but it wasn't the surprise it would have been a month ago.

"Please have the courage to write that this is the best team in the country, not that this is an upset," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said. "I know everybody had preordained Stanford as the national champion this year, but I would make an argument that once the NCAA tournament started, the path we took, the way we won games … we were clearly the best team in the country come NCAA tournament time."

The national championship trophy Waldrum hand-delivered at something close to a sprint to his celebrating players in the seconds after the final whistle is really the only piece of evidence he needs to end any arguments he receives on that count. But there is also little argument that the story of the season had less to do with outsiders underrating his team or overrating a Stanford team that deservedly held the No. 1 ranking for most of the season than his team understanding how good it could be and how far from that it was after a Big East tournament loss to Connecticut.

[+] EnlargeRandy Waldrum
Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMIRandy Waldrum led Notre Dame to its third national championship.

Nobody represents that potential more than Henderson, named the Most Outstanding Player on offense at the College Cup. The Fighting Irish are now 43-0-2 when the junior forward from Texas registers a point or an assist. And while it's not necessarily unusual that a team would have a good record when its top forward scores, this may be a case where the stat at least partially creates the wins, rather than the other way around.

"I think the key is they feed off of a Mel that's ready to play," Waldrum said. "She has those games sometimes where she doesn't do enough, and it seems like she's passing the buck to somebody else. So once they see Mel is ready to play, it definitely motivates everybody else.

"You could see it in the warm-up today. Almost every shot she took on goal in warm-ups, she was scoring. And you could see the kids like, 'All right, Mel's hot today.' They do feed off it."

Henderson didn't score the goal that gave Notre Dame its third national championship, but she did everything but in the buildup that led to freshman Adriana Leon's brilliant finish in the 63rd minute -- controlling an attempted clearance, spinning away from a defender, getting to the end line and delivering a ball back into open space in front of the goal. Leon did the rest in beating Stanford keeper Emily Oliver high, no small feat on a day when Oliver made point-blank save after point-blank save to a degree rarely seen in the women's college game.

"If you walk into our locker room you'll see the word 'attack' written 50 times on the wall," Henderson said. "It's just about that one turn, you get past the defender and there's one more to beat and then you have a spotted pass, it's going to be wide open."

A lot of players are described as "nice" or "good" as a way to enhance their athletic prowess -- not only does so-and-so have a wicked right foot and a creative streak, but unlike other players with those skills, she's a nice person! But you get a sense of just how genuine the description is when applied to Henderson, a soft-spoken kid with a Texas-sized smile; in fact, it comes up as something she in some ways had to overcome.

"I think Mel is one that is a player that you need to keep her positive with her approach," Waldrum said. "She's just such a good person. Her faith is very important to her, her relationship with her teammates -- to a point where this year I had to pull her aside a little bit and say, 'Mel, your team wants you to be more selfish; we're OK with you scoring goals regularly.' Where sometimes she wants to make sure that everybody gets the glory."

Leon's goal meant that all four Notre Dame goals scored in the wins against Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Stanford came off the foot of a freshman, following Elizabeth Tucker's two goals against the Cowgirls and Mandy Laddish's blast against the Buckeyes. But as good as the freshmen were all season, along with freshman outside back Kecia Morway, it's no coincidence that there was open space for them, or that Henderson assisted on two of those final four tallies. A great goal-scorer is one thing; a striker who can lead the way without scoring a goal is something special.

[+] EnlargeLeon
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeFreshman Adriana Leon scoreed the game-winner for the Irish.

"I think when you've got a kid like that who is going to create havoc for the defense, it takes the pressure off of [the freshmen], where they can just go play," Waldrum said. "They don't have to be the ones to carry the load, so to speak. When she does that, all eyes on the defense are glued to her, and it certainly creates the lanes for the other ones to get into."

Teammate and fellow Texan Courtney Barg has been one of Henderson's closest friends since the two were barely beyond 10 years old. More even than Waldrum, she has a sense of just how much her friend has grown from a complementary piece alongside Kerri Hanks and Brittany Bock to the star in the spotlight and one of the leaders who helped steer the turnaround off the field after the Connecticut loss.

"Coming in freshman year with big names like Bock and Hanks up there with her, she did an amazing job freshman year and last year," Barg said. "But definitely this past year, she's taken on more of a leadership role and gotten a lot more confidence in her ability. She should have had that since Day 1 because she's hands-down the best player [in the country]."

Press, Stanford's senior forward, still has a very real claim to that title and to the Hermann Trophy, the award handed out to the best college player in the nation. But one of her final efforts Sunday summed up a day of frustration. Dribbling toward the top of the 18-yard box, she found any room for one of her trademark cutbacks blocked by Jessica Schuveiller, doggedly holding her ground to Press' left. And just as Press decided to take what Schuveiller was giving her and launch a right-footed shot to the far post, Molly Campbell stepped to Press from that side and obstructed the shot. No one Notre Dame defender was going to handle Press over 90 minutes. So all four did.

"I'm real, real proud of Jess and Molly Campbell, defensively, because I thought they did an outstanding job on Christen Press," Waldrum said.

Outstanding is one word for it. But on the final day of Notre Dame's postseason, there was a better word for it. Perfection.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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