It seemed like it might have lasted forever. With every setback this season, Yale women’s soccer shook itself off and took the field just a little bit stronger. The Elis’ class, skill and resilience took them to unprecedented heights in 2005, winning an outright Ivy League Championship and then a spot in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, both program firsts. But at some point, the dream would have to end.

And if it had to end, at least the Bulldogs went down with a fight against one of the most formidable machines in collegiate women’s soccer history.

South Bend’s Alumni Field served as the frigid battleground where No. 25 Yale (15-4-1, 5-1-1 Ivy) made its final valiant stand Nov. 18. The squad hung close with No. 5 Notre Dame (22-2) for most of the matchup, but ultimately the defending NCAA champions were too much for the upstart Elis, and the Fighting Irish clinched a quarterfinal berth with a 5-2 victory.

Still, the loss will hardly be remembered as a chink in the Cinderella story that was the 2005 Yale women’s soccer team. Head coach Rudy Meredith said he has nothing but pride for his team’s performance.

“You have got to look at the positive things,” he said. “We lost to the defending national champions, and they had given up one goal in the last 11 games. We scored twice. Therefore, we did better than almost anyone else did against them.”

Momentum in the days before the clash with the Irish was monumental. The Bulldogs left the Elm City for Indiana the previous Wednesday still energized from their stunning second-round victory over No. 10 Duke in New Haven Nov. 13. Midfielder Laurel Karnes ’06, fighting for a chance to extend her Yale career just one more game, popped a final-second shot past the defense of the heavily-favored Blue Devils, setting off a celebration for the ages in muddy Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium.

“We each had a lot of confidence,” midfielder Crysti Howser ’09 said. “If you beat a team like Duke, one of the best teams in the ACC, you think you can beat just about anyone.”

The Bulldogs touched down in the snow-dusted Midwest and had a few days to gear up for their Friday night date with the Fighting Irish. As buses from Cambridge were just reaching Phelps Gate and festivities were kicking off back in New Haven, the Elis took the field for the most important game in program history.

Out of the gate, the Elis found themselves in a two-goal hole. Notre Dame’s Amanda Cinalli beat Chloe Beizer ’07 from the top of the goalie box at 15:39 to put the Irish up by one. The feed came from 2004 Soccer America Player of the Year Katie Thorlakson, who nabbed her 32nd assist of the season and was just getting started on the day. Just under six minutes later, Brittany Bock drove into the box and outwitted a pair of Eli defenders to put a crooked number up on the scoreboard.

“It was new and it was strange to be down early,” captain Eleni Benson ’06 said. “They have a high-powered offense and two forwards that were amazing and have the ability to find anyone in the box who’s open. We were disappointed, but knew we were playing a good team.”

Despite facing their first two-goal deficit this season, the Bulldogs did not back down in unfamiliar territory. Karnes, the hero a week before, cut the Notre Dame lead in half when she redirected a pass from forward Emma Whitfield ’09 past Irish goalie Erika Bohn. The score was career goal number 30 for the veteran, and she would end her career fourth all-time in Yale history.

Unfortunately, Thorlakson had more tricks up her sleeve and got the two-goal advantage back for the hometown team in mere minutes. At 39:16, she crossed to sophomore forward Susan Pinnick, who made the easy tap-in for a 3-1 lead.

The two-goal deficit would stick going into the break, and Meredith made a few modifications at halftime.

“We tried to change formation so we were attacking more and getting more chances,” Howser said. “And though we only got one more, it really helped a lot and we put a lot of pressure on them in the second.”

Whatever Meredith said or did at halftime must have put a spark into the Elis. They nabbed their second goal just a few minutes after the break when Howser found Whitfield on a through pass, and she snuck it past Bohn at 50:50. All of a sudden, it was a one-goal game again.

But Notre Dame’s Kerri Hanks, a freshman phenom with 26 goals on the season, had been silent thus far. Few teams had been able to keep the forward in check in her rookie year, and soon the Bulldogs would fall victim to a deadly pair of goals.

Hanks’ first came at 63:42, when she beat Susan Starr ’08 on an assist by Cinalli and Jill Krivacek. Meredith reverted back to his early season strategy in goal, starting Beizer and subbing in Starr after the break. Starr was making her first appearance since the Dartmouth game Nov. 2, after which she had succumbed to nagging back problems and was sidelined for two weeks.

If the two-goal deficit was not enough, Thorlakson and Hanks, perhaps the most dangerous duo in NCAA soccer this year, finally combined for the fifth Irish goal of the night — and Hanks’ second — with under six minutes left in regulation. After that, Meredith knew the season was on the verge of closing and put in his seniors for one final time together.

“Not until they scored the fifth goal did I think it was over,” Benson said. “We kept thinking we were coming back. For most of the game, I thought we were going to hang with them, and it was a matter of who scored most at the end.”

Devastation was hardly the key word after the final whistle blew on the 2005 season. The Irish would advance, destined to lose to Portland the following weekend, but the Elis had few regrets.

The honors kept coming through the holiday week. Benson, already with an Olympic appearance and an Ivy League title under her belt, was named an ESPN The Magazine Academic All-American Tuesday.

“She maximized the experience of student-athlete,” Meredith said. “Being captain her senior year, going to the Olympics, winning the Ivies. She is the epitome of what a student athlete should be.”

Meredith characterized the long trip home as nostalgic, with players recounting their numerous exploits from the expired season.

“The seniors had accomplished their goal as a class to win the Ivies, and playing Notre Dame was a bonus,” he said. “We had all kinds of memories from the season: beating Princeton, the overtime game in Maryland and against Harvard, beating Dartmouth. To put the icing on the cake, beating Duke with one second in the game. That’s a dream come true, not only with the Ivies and Sweet Sixteen, but to do it in the fashion that we did.”

With 15 wins, an outright Ancient Eight title, and a third-round NCAA appearance, few can argue that 2005 will not be the benchmark against which all future Yale teams will be measured.

Not bad for a team that was supposed to finish fourth in the Ivies this year.