It is an understatement to say that this has been quite the hectic week in the world of Yale sports. Men’s soccer starts tournament play tonight after nailing down a share of the Ivy title last weekend, volleyball was on the cusp of clinching one of their own Wednesday night, and, of course, the Crimson come to town tomorrow for the 122nd chapter of the most storied rivalry in college football.
With all this hubbub brewing in the Elm City, one might have forgotten women’s soccer is still alive. Alive, and about to play the most important game in program history tonight in South Bend.
The Elis (15-3-1, 5-1-1 Ivy) could have every intangible factor on their side — and after Sunday’s miracle finish at Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium, they just might — but they will still need a performance for the ages to top defending NCAA Champion Notre Dame (20-2). The Irish welcome the Ivy League champions for tonight’s third-round College Cup game at Alumni Field, currently under a half-inch of snow, where the home team has not lost since Nov. 16, 2003.
While the Bulldogs undoubtedly understand the slanted advantage the home team might hold, most players are quick to point out that they were also underdogs going up against No. 10 Duke last Sunday. The squad stuck to its game plan and pulled out the last-second triumph over the Blue Devils, and the Elis see no reason why history cannot repeat itself.
“[Notre Dame’s] record has not really affected us,” captain Eleni Benson ’06 said. “After the Duke game, we think about staying within the game and know we can play with anyone in the country.”
Only a few of the 20 teams Notre Dame has faced this season have even begun to figure out how to solve the Fighting Irish’s explosive offense. Notre Dame outscored opponents 104-10 in 2005, leading all Division I teams with a 4.52 goals per game average. For a little perspective, the Elis topped the Ivy ranks with 40 goals on the season.
The Irish are anchored by a pair of dominating forwards, one finishing up an impressive career and the other just bursting onto the national scene. Senior Katie Thorlakson, the 2004 Soccer America Player of the Year, topped all Division I women with 31 assists this year, and freshman Kerri Hanks is fifth with 26 goals. Strangely enough, the duo is tied for third in the division with 2.91 points per game.
Setbacks were few and far between for the historical powerhouse this year, which regularly dispatched opponents by four or five goals. The Irish coasted to first place in the Big East regular-season standings, then rolled over Georgetown, Marquette and Connecticut in the conference tournament.
Interestingly enough, Marquette, who fell to Notre Dame, 3-0, in the conference semifinals Nov. 4, was one of the two teams, along with Santa Clara, that actually beat the Irish this season. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the Golden Eagles caught the defending champions on a day when they were badly depleted by injuries.
Still, the Bulldogs believe they have a chance by just sticking to their game plan.
“We’re not going to change our style of play,” goalkeeper Chloe Beizer ’07 said. “We want to be ready to take them out of their game. They might be underestimating us, so we can put them on their heels and have a chance.”
The Elis will stick with a 4-4-2 setup to match up against the Irish, whose 4-3-3 structure gives them an extra forward on the Bulldogs. Benson said close marking will be key — the Irish are notoriously good at finding open players up front.
Defenseman Mary Kuder ’08 said consistent pressure will keep the Elis in the game.
“We’re treating this a lot like the UNC game,” Kuder said. “We have to have keep up on a bunch of different strategies, brush up their backs a lot, and keep them under a lot of pressure.”
Walking around the storied byways of the South Bend campus, it might be easy to get caught up in the Notre Dame aura. But tunnel vision has been key for the Bulldogs, and Kuder said that if anything, there is less pressure now than there was in the North Carolina game back in early September.
“Back then, we didn’t know how good we were,” she said. “I’m not even worried, I know we’ll play our best. And I’ll be proud of us, no matter what.”
Yale head coach Rudy Meredith, now famous for his rallying one-line monikers, revealed a new one to his team this week: “If you can compete, you can defeat.” And, as the whole team knows, the Elis go in with one overriding advantage over the Irish tonight.
“They are the national champions,” Benson said. “They have everything to lose, and we have nothing to lose.”