Notre Dame's experiences are key to Cary

November, 29, 2008
11/29/08
10:31
AM ET
Programs have history; players have experiences.

With a 2-0 quarterfinal win against Florida State, Notre Dame earned the program's 10th trip to the College Cup -- which ties it with Santa Clara for second-most behind UNC -- and its third in the past three seasons. In 1995, Notre Dame won its first national championship, beating host North Carolina at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill, N.C., in the semifinals. A second championship came nearly a decade later, this time in nearby Cary, N.C., in 2004. And two years ago, The Fighting Irish suffered their first loss of the season against North Carolina in Cary in the title game.

So as a soccer program, Notre Dame has been here before.

But whether or not this trip to Cary ends happily may ultimately have less to do with all of that history than defender Elise Weber, who wasn't on hand for any of those moments. It's not just Weber, of course, although the outside back did set up the corner kick that produced Notre Dame's first goal against Florida State and is mentioned as a potential sleeper so often by people paying attention to the new professional league that she probably no longer qualifies for the label. It's really what Weber represents about a roster that hopes it has found the perfect mix of experience and youthful enthusiasm.

A starter at Wisconsin as a freshman and sophomore, Weber transferred to Notre Dame prior to last season and immediately assumed a starting role on the back line. Playing mostly at outside back, with an occasional sojourn in the midfield, she proved to be one of the team's more reliable options. But as a whole, Notre Dame's defense suffered through a year of adjustment in 2007, transitioning with Weber, freshman Julie Scheidler and junior Carrie Dew, who was coming off major knee surgery and played the entire season with a knee brace. Things improved from an early 7-1 loss to Santa Clara, but seven goals allowed in three games in the NCAA tournament were more than any Notre Dame team had allowed in the postseason since 1994.

But after a shutout Friday against the Seminoles, the third in a row by the Irish this postseason, things have changed for Notre Dame. Weber and Scheidler have combined for more than 90 starts since the beginning of last season. Dew long ago shed the knee brace and reclaimed a place as arguably the college game's best defender. And all that continuity made it easy to add freshman Jessica Schuveiller, who scored the opening goal against the Seminoles and has been a steady partner for Dew in the middle.

"She's just been awesome; she's stepped up every game this year," Weber said. "I mean, you never know with freshmen coming in, just because it's their first year. And she plays like she's a senior every game."

The same goes for the midfield, where sophomore Rose Augustin and freshman Courtney Barg are thriving, and up top, where freshman Melissa Henderson's sensational debut alongside Kerri Hanks has overshadowed a strong run from Taylor Knack (including the second goal against Florida State, one of five in the sophomore's first healthy season after a torn ACL forced her out last fall).

All told, the starting lineup against Florida State in the quarterfinals contained just two players -- Hanks and Michelle Weisenhoffer -- who started against North Carolina the championship game two years ago. Of the 15 players who saw the field against the Seminoles this season, seven weren't even on the roster in 2006. But even if players such as Weber, Knack and Scheidler aren't responsible for much of the history the Fighting Irish bring with them to Cary, they have had their share of experiences in getting here, overcoming a tough regular season to reach the College Cup last season or beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill earlier this season.

"Coming in to Notre Dame, I was hoping that this would be the kind of experience I would get -- that I'd get to play in these big games," Weber said. "And it's just been an awesome experience. I can't even put it into words. I mean, I love the girls, I love the school, I love everything about it. So I'm so glad I made the choice, and I really wouldn't trade it for anything."

• Brittany Bock came off the bench against Florida State, her first appearance since a knee injury forced her out of the lineup before the final of the Big East tournament.

"That was definitely a boost, because she's such a great player," Weber said. "And having her back, it just, I think, gives us even more confidence. And hopefully she'll be even more ready on Friday and Sunday [in the semifinals and a potential final]. I think her knee's just getting better and better every day, so I think she'll be even better on Friday."

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

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