- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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STORRS, Conn. -- Perfection took a detour for No. 1 Notre Dame at Morrone Stadium on the campus of the University of Connecticut on Friday night, but a 0-0 tie against the host Huskies might leave the nation's top team with a better roadmap to Cary, N.C. and a national title than anything MapQuest could provide.
The Fighting Irish entered the game with a spotless 13-0-0 record and ranked No. 1 in the country in every major poll. Randy Waldrum's team had outscored opponents 45-3 in the first 13 games, including wins against ranked foes USC, Santa Clara and West Virginia. The team's domination was so extreme that it had nearly twice as many goals as its opponents had shots on goal (26).
All in all, Waldrum felt pretty good about his team's potential following decisive wins against conference foes West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Seton Hall and Rutgers the last two weekends. But 110 minutes of scoreless soccer on Friday night, ending his team's streak of 49 consecutive games with at least one goal, proved potential doesn't yet equal perfection.
"I thought the last two weekends, we were starting to get close to where we can be," Waldrum said after Friday's game. "And I think we've still got a ways to go. I think if we can continue through this stretch, and the Big East and hopefully the first few rounds of the NCAA, if we can continue to progress, I think it could be a really, really good team. I think it could be one of the better teams in the last few years to come out from any of the teams.
"But we've got a ways to go. I mean, clearly, you see tonight some things Lenny [UConn coach Len Tsantiris] did with his team that created some problems for us. And we'll now go back and discuss that and make sure we're prepared for it the next time."
As much success as the program has had under Waldrum, this isn't an unfamiliar script; Connecticut has long been a thorn in Notre Dame's side. In 2000, top-ranked and undefeated Notre Dame traveled to Connecticut on the way to an eventual berth in the College Cup. The Huskies, then ranked 25th, held the Irish to a 0-0 tie. Four years later, having defeated Connecticut 1-0 earlier in the season, the Fighting Irish lost the final of the Big East tournament to the Huskies. As it turned out, that 2-1 loss was the only blemish in a 25-1-1 season that culminated in Notre Dame's second national championship.
So even struggling through a surprisingly difficult .500 season, the Huskies appeared likely candidates to give the Irish a fight.
And Tsantiris' team lived up that expectation. Focusing on slowing down Notre Dame's attack -- Tsantiris continued a recent trend of utilizing sophomore Brittany Taylor, a star-in-waiting who scored a team-high eight goals playing mostly up front last season, alongside potential All-American Niki Cross on the back line -- the Huskies played composed, physical soccer.
Instead of Connecticut appearing overwhelmed, it was Notre Dame who at times appeared distracted or out of sync, even while generating consistently better chances.
"I was disappointed that I didn't think we matched the energy level they had initially," Waldrum said. "And I thought we let them believe they should be in the game. And when you get a team that believes they can play with you, you're in trouble. And then I thought there were times we had some good stuff going and every time it seemed like the final pass was too far or somebody takes a bad touch and now it's a giveaway. So I thought we had a lot of little breakdowns technically, but I think a lot of that was due to UConn's pressure, too. I thought they played a very good game tonight."
Nowhere was it more evident that the Fighting Irish were just a step off than in following the progress of sophomore forward Kerri Hanks. An All-American and likely finalist for the Hermann Trophy for the second year in a row, Hanks stands out even on a roster loaded with prized recruits. With 99 points in 39 career games, she's off to one of the best starts in recent memory. Her 28 goals last season ranked fourth all-time among NCAA freshmen and 21st among all classes for a single season.
And even on this cold and ultimately unsatisfying night, her ability to see the field and break down angles like a pool player lining up a difficult bank shot was on display. At least twice in the first half, she found creases between UConn defenders that didn't seem to be there, getting in on goal only to find passes just a step too far in front of her. Her corner kicks and free kicks, especially early in the game, were booming, authoritarian boots that put immediate pressure on the defense. And her vision on passes was at times remarkable, seeming to pull teammates to the right spot on the field without escaping their reach.
But the long march of scoreless minutes, physical play and laissez-faire officiating seemed to take an increasingly heavy toll on Hanks. The lasting images of the evening were of her barking at the fourth official on the sideline or taking a frustrated and half-hearted swipe at the referee late in overtime, after what she felt was yet another missed call. It seemed to sum up an evening when little went right for the star.
"The kind of balls Kerri is getting played in -- when you get Niki [Cross], with her size and physicality on her, Kerri's not a post-up kind of player with her back to pressure, and a lot of times those were the balls we were playing in to her," Waldrum said. "Her forte is running off the ball, finding space to run in and these little seams to dart in between players, and we just didn't find her enough like that today."
But Waldrum was equally quick to defend the sophomore's passionate displays, even in a game in which they appeared to be a detriment to her overall success.
"Kerri's a competitor," Waldrum said. "And when she thinks it should be going better than it is for her, she gets angry. And that's why she's probably so good at what she does in scoring goals. She's one of those kinds of players; her margin for error is very small. She doesn't take it lightly when she makes mistakes, and she doesn't take it lightly when others make mistakes in a tough game. And I think she just expresses it a lot more than other players that we have that are that way, too, but just don't say it as much."
While Waldrum wasn't talking specifically about senior midfielder Jen Buczkowski, he might as well have been. The team's other Hermann candidate, Buczkowski stands in direct contrast to Hanks on the field. While even she was left visibly exasperated on a couple of occasions by the uneven officiating (that at least equally slighted both sides), she spent most of the game evading attention. In this particular case, Waldrum might have liked her to be a little more assertive, but one of Buczkowski's strengths is her ability to gracefully key offensive attacks while playing in space, seemingly ensconced in her own bubble free from defenders.
"Honestly, tonight I thought she was a little bit off her game, but I think she's clearly, to me, she's one of the best midfielders in the country and we'd be a different team without her," Waldrum said.
And Waldrum meant country, as opposed to college, making quite clear the esteem in which he holds his captain.
"I think Greg Ryan and our national team's missing the boat," Waldrum said. "I think she's as good as any midfield player he's got on the full national team. I think she'll be there eventually, into that mix. But when I watch his team play, I think clearly she should be somebody he's taking a look at. But that's not my job to tell him that; he's got to do that himself.
"And I think that just goes to tell you how much I think of her as a player. I think she's just such a calming effect on our team. She's been a leader by her play ever since here freshman year. You know, she's not a vocal type player; she's not going to get into you like Hanks does and she's not going to kind of verbalize things, but she'll do it by her play."
Perhaps the only Notre Dame player who truly could take Friday's game as a positive experience was goalkeeper Lauren Karas. While the Huskies officially were credited with only two shots on goal, their counters against a Notre Dame team constantly looking to push the attack created any number of potentially perilous situations in front of the net.
Largely untested this season, thanks to her team's domination, Karas' poise pleased Waldrum, even if it didn't completely surprise him.
"I thought she handled it very well, and that's what you hope," Waldrum said. "You hope you don't get to a point where you're in such a big game, and she hasn't had any action, that now all of a sudden she's going to cost you something. And I thought tonight, she was very composed in everything that she did.
"It's unfortunate for our goalkeepers, because I've always thought for the last few years that we've had some of the best goalkeepers in the conference. It's just difficult to get them any recognition, because they're not getting the shots other goalkeepers are getting."
The fact that Connecticut, a team which for all its struggles still led North Carolina 2-0 at halftime in a game in September, needed to execute a game plan with such energy and passion in order to hold on for a tie at home against Notre Dame speaks volumes about the Fighting Irish.
And as much as future opponents might look at scouting reports about how the Huskies used Cross and others to put Hanks in uncomfortable situations and limit Buczkowski's effectiveness, Waldrum will have just as much time to find ways around such plans.
Late in the second overtime, after doing just about everything right for more than 100 minutes, UConn left Notre Dame's Amanda Cinalli unmarked in front of net. Cinalli's header slid across the crossbar and out, leaving the Irish just inches away from a 1-0 lead. Even on a night when so little went right for Notre Dame, that was all that separated them from another win.
"That's soccer," summed up Waldrum.
It's a frightening thought for opponents, but Friday's tie might not provide a blueprint for stopping the Fighting Irish so much as it reminds foes that when the Irish come to play, there is very little anyone can do to stop them.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.