Opponents won't catch a break against top-ranked Irish
Notre Dame cruised to the Big East championship on the nation's most prolific offense and an often overlooked defense. Will the Irish be kinder to NCAA Tournament foes? That's doubtful, writes Graham Hays.
STORRS, Conn. -- So what would happen if the immovable object teamed up with the irresistible force?
Fresh off winning the Big East tournament, knocking off St. John's, Marquette and Rutgers on the road to that title, the Irish (20-0-1) enter NCAA play as the only unbeaten team in Division I. Coach Randy Waldrum's offense isn't quite as potent as the group that scored 110 goals in 25 games last season, the third-most prolific team in the program's history, but it's still arguably the scariest in the nation.
Through the start of the conference tournament, Notre Dame ranked seventh in the nation in scoring, and second only to Navy among ranked teams, averaging 3.21 goals per game. The Irish scored at least two goals in all but two games this season, and they scored at least three goals in 11 games. Sophomore Kerri Hanks, who scored 28 goals as a freshman, again ranks in the top 10 nationally with 18 goals through 21 games, and freshman Michele Weissenhofer (13 goals, 17 assists) has done a remarkable job of replacing the production of Canadian international Katie Thorlakson. And that doesn't even take into account senior midfielder Jen Buczkowski, who Waldrum feels is so effective that she already should be playing for Greg Ryan's senior national team.
In short, it has been business as usual for one of the nation's best offenses this season. But all the talent up front makes it easy to overlook another group of players who dominate without the benefit of easily digestible statistics.
"We get so much publicity for our attacking players," Waldrum said after the Irish beat Marquette 2-0 in the Big East semifinals. "I think players that come to Notre Dame just understand that that's kind of where the media likes players that have stats and the offensive side of things. But I wouldn't take away anything that our backs have done. I think it's been one of the best back four lines, and we're five or six players deep in that back line that we can change."
Notre Dame's defense nearly pitched a shutout in the Big East tournament, allowing two meaningless goals late in a 4-2 win against Rutgers in the title game. But shutouts are nothing new. In 21 games, the Irish have allowed just seven goals, giving them an outside shot at the school record for fewest goals allowed in a season, even if they play six more games on the way to a national title (the current record is nine goals allowed in 25 games by the 1995 team).
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"You can't win games if you don't score goals, but you also can't win games if you let in goals," senior Kim Lorenzen said. "One of the main things we try to do is limit our opponents to five shots per game, so I mean, if we're shutting them out, they probably have less than that. I have no idea what that stat is, but it's very important to us to keep a shutout."
It's easy to understand how Lorenzen might have lost track of the exact number of times the team has achieved that goal; it's a big number. In fact, the Irish haven't allowed five shots on goal in a game since giving up 10 in a 3-1 win against fellow championship contender Santa Clara in early September. They've allowed a little more than 40 shots on goal all season.
To this point, the biggest challenge for Notre Dame's defense has been internal. Sophomore Carrie Dew, a starter as a freshman and co-captain of the Under-20 national team that competed in the World Championship in Russia this year, will miss the postseason after partially tearing an ACL in a game against Cincinnati on Oct. 24. Little more than a week later, Dew was honored as the Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
Waldrum said that although the team initially had hoped Dew might be able to return for the NCAA Tournament, further tests persuaded the Irish to shut her down in preparation for offseason surgery and a clean bill of health in 2007.
In Dew's place, freshman Haley Ford has stepped in as a central defender, playing alongside Lorenzen and between outside backs Ashley Jones and Christie Shaner. Lorenzen and Shaner are both four-year starters, with Shaner earning All-Big East honors all four seasons.
For the players on the field, chemistry hasn't an issue, perhaps in part because of the time Ford earned when Dew was out of the lineup early in the season while playing for the U-20 national team.
"It was a little bit of an adjustment, but Haley Ford has stepped in big-time," Lorenzen said. "She's a great player, and I think we're working just as well as we did without Carrie, even though we miss Carrie a lot."
The results on the field back up Lorenzen's assertion, and if the defense hasn't lost a step without Dew, it's likely thanks as much to the senior captain's leadership as anything. A four-year starter for the Irish, Lorenzen is the first solo captain for the program since K.T. Sullivan skippered the team in it first season of existence in 1988. Considering the quality of talent -- and of character -- that has passed through South Bend in the intervening years, that's a strong endorsement of Lorenzen's intangibles.
For all the talent on offense, it's that on-field leadership Waldrum and the coaching staff felt was missing last season, when the Irish lost 3-1 to eventual national champion Portland in a regional final.
As Waldrum saw it, "We had great players, but we had a little bit of a lack of leadership, in a sense that we had great leaders in solving off-the-field issues and keeping players happy and keeping the chemistry, but when we really needed somebody that would get into somebody when something needed to be done on the field, we just really didn't have the players that would step up and say that.
"And in the women's game, I think sometimes that's a difficult thing to get women to do because they're concerned about their relationships with their teammates and things. And Kimmy is one of those that she knows when to jump into somebody and she knows when to put her arm on her and say, you know, 'Everything is OK.' And we just felt like if we had any other captains with her, that would kind of demean that part of her strength that she really brings to it."
Talk to Lorenzen for even a few minutes, and it's not hard to understand what Waldrum means. Just as there is such a thing as false hustle, there is false intensity, where players affect the demeanor of focus off the field without living up to it on the field. But there is nothing put-on about Lorenzen. She is smiling and cordial, but her answers are direct, assertive and to the point; she responds without a moment of hesitation or indecisiveness, as if a question was a forward dribbling at her through open space.
Asked about the honor of being a solo captain, she neither shrugs it off nor basks too long in self-congratulation, she instead simply puts it in perspective.
"I take a lot of pride in it, but a lot of things people don't see is how much the rest of the senior class has to do with it," Lorenzen said. "I'm the only one with the name captain, but the rest of our team, the eight seniors that we have, really step up and help me out. So it's one of those team things."
She is similarly unwilling to allow the idea, convenient for purposes of writers, that the defense is somehow distinct from the offense and therefore able to be overlooked.
"I think a lot of the times, you don't realize how much the defense actually has to do with the offense and how much the offense has to do with the defense," Lorenzen said. "So I don't think it's overshadowed. I mean, if people think that our defense is weak, then all the power to us, because I don't think we are."
And certainly the defensive effort for Notre Dame extends well beyond the four backs and goalkeeper Lauren Karas. Hanks, Weissenhofer and the attacking players do their part by keeping pressure on the other end of the field, but perhaps no player is more involved in both ends of the field as senior midfielder Jill Krivacek. Like Shannon Boxx, a former Golden Domer who has gone on to become the best defensive midfielder in the world (although currently rehabbing a knee injury), Krivacek blends size and skills to keep opponents from developing offensive forays while also contributing her own offense (four goals and five assists this season).
"I think Jill has a lot of the same qualities that Shannon Boxx has," Waldrum said when asked about the comparison. "They're a little different in their mannerisms on the ball, but they both are skillful on it and they're both good in the air. Jill's fitness level this year has probably been the best it's ever been, so she's covering a lot more ground than she used to. I don't think she's one that gets a lot of recognition, as much as she deserves."
And although Ford is finishing her first season, one more thing that unites Lorenzen, Krivacek, Karas, junior Jones and senior Shaner is experience. No matter what happens in the coming weeks, they've been there before. They were there in 2004 -- with Lorenzen, Shaner and Krivacek as starters -- when Notre Dame won the national championship. And they were there last November, when a Portland team with an awe-inspiring offense and underrated defense knocked them out.
Neither experience has been forgotten.
"I think 2004 and 2005, both ways, help us," Lorenzen said. "Because 2004, a lot of us have been there, so we know what it takes, but last year we felt the heartache of losing to Portland in the quarterfinal, so we don't want to feel that way again."
Stopping Notre Dame from scoring sometimes seems like an impossible task. But when it comes to beating the nation's top-ranked team, it's really only half the battle.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.