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Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Irish regain force in time for tourney

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- It was the kind of game Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum wanted his players to know could cost them down the road when it comes to seeding for the NCAA tournament. It was also the game the Fighting Irish may look back on as the point at which they became one of the teams to beat in that tournament.

Courtney Barg
Courtney Barg's return gives Notre Dame another versatile threat.

A game nearly lost, but an All-American regained.

On a raw, wet and windy Friday evening, Notre Dame drew Connecticut 1-1, snapping a steak of 13 consecutive Big East regular-season wins for the Fighting Irish dating back to last season. Waldrum's team controlled play for much of the night but couldn't convert until finally taking a 1-0 lead on Melissa Henderson's goal in the 78th minute, only to surrender the equalizer with fewer than three minutes to play in regulation on Linda Ruutu's free kick from just outside the 18-yard box.

"You've got to play the full 90 minutes; you can't drop points," Waldrum said after two scoreless overtime periods, including a nervous first period in which Connecticut repeatedly threatened to take the win. "I thought we played pretty well. We created enough chances; we just didn't finish enough tonight. We could have put this game away a lot earlier."

But wherever they land in the NCAA tournament, and a No. 1 seed is likely still there for the taking after a 3-1 win at Providence on Sunday, the Fighting Irish will be better for having Courtney Barg. The 2009 Big East Midfielder of the Year made her season debut in Friday's draw, coming off the bench to play 56 minutes after missing 14 games with a hip injury.

"She brings such a calming effect on your team," Waldrum said. "She's just so good on the ball. I think now it's just a matter of getting her fit to play, get her game fitness level up. Obviously, we were very cautious in how many minutes we played her [Friday]. It will probably be the same for the next couple of games, just to make sure we don't get [her] injured by trying to play her too much."

Having the junior at all was anything but a given. Barg said a redshirt season was very much part of the discussion as the missed games began to pile up. But with the hip responding to treatment and her team in the thick of the national race -- the Irish are 14-1-1 (8-0-1 Big East) -- she opted to use the eligibility on the final four games of the regular season and whatever the postseason brings.

"I thought my injury was healed enough to hopefully try and make an impact," Barg said.

She made her return as a holding midfielder, the same role she took over midway through last season after injuries to other players left Notre Dame undermanned. Waldrum admits it's a concession to team needs for a player who has filled an attacking role for most of her soccer life -- indeed, the plan prior to last season was to give her the freedom to roam between the forward and midfield lines, a role Waldrum said he hadn't entrusted to anyone since former All-American Anne Makinen more than a decade ago. But Barg's ability to control possession and distribute the ball in front of a back line that includes seniors Lauren Fowlkes (an All-American), Jessica Schuveiller and Julie Scheidler should make the Fighting Irish particularly steady in their own half.

"Accountability," Barg said of the biggest difference in mindset as a holding mid. "When you make an attack as an attacking player and you lose the ball, you have so many people behind you -- defenders and defensive midfielders. As a more defensive-minded midfielder, you are a part of that defense now."

She remains all over the field. Barg got on the scoreboard in her second appearance, setting up Rose Augustin's goal against the Friars. Safe to say, it won't be her last contribution.

"I think she's the best midfield player in the country," Waldrum said. "And I don't know why somebody like [U.S. national team coach Pia Sundhage] wouldn't be picking up the phone and saying let's take her into camp. Because when I watch our full national team play, they don't have anybody that can control the game. I think she would be a great player for the international game -- her composure, her skill and the way she's tactically so smart and savvy."

Around the nation

If the draw at Connecticut opened the door a crack in the race for the top four seeds, who might be waiting to wedge a well-placed cleat in the opening?

Stanford clearly controls its own fate for the No. 1 overall seed, and even a loss in Pac-10 play shouldn't prevent the Cardinal from claiming one of the top four seeds and a chance to host a potential quarterfinal. Portland has a 2-1-0 record against RPI top-10 teams, and despite poor treatment at the hands of the NCAA selection committee in recent seasons, the Pilots also seem to control their own fate in advance of big weekend games against San Diego and Santa Clara (Sunday, ESPNU, 3 p.m. ET). And an ACC regular-season or conference tournament title -- in addition to wins against Texas A&M and Florida -- would make perennial quarterfinal host North Carolina difficult to pass up.

Notre Dame or an ACC team (Florida State, Virginia, Maryland or perhaps still Boston College) will have designs on the other No. 1 seed, but how about Oklahoma State? The Cowgirls wrapped up their home schedule with a 3-2 win against Colorado and a 4-2 win against Nebraska, getting three goals from senior Katie Richardson and pushing their unbeaten streak to 13 games. Oklahoma State is 5-1-0 against RPI top-50 teams, although just 0-1-0 against RPI top-20 teams. If the Big 12-leading Cowgirls win at Texas and Texas A&M this weekend, there could be soccer in Stillwater after Thanksgiving.

We're not far removed from the first teams clinching NCAA tournament spots in leagues that don't have postseason tournaments, but Hofstra went a long way toward unofficially wrapping up a bid -- and more importantly, proving itself a threat once it gets there -- by sweeping a road trip to traditional Colonial Athletic Association power William & Mary and Old Dominion. The Pride are now two games clear of James Madison and UNC-Wilmington in the standings (the regular-season champion hosts the conference tournament).

Hofstra hasn't lost since a season-opening setback against Boston College. With six goals on the weekend (winning 3-2 against William & Mary and 3-1 against Old Dominion on Sunday), the Pride have already sailed past last season's total offensive output and scored multiple goals in seven consecutive games. Tiffany Yovino scored the winner against William & Mary with 45 seconds to play in regulation, her second goal of the game and one of six she's scored in the past five games after scoring 10 in her first three-and-a-half seasons. Through Sunday's games, the Pride rank 16th in the nation in goals per game, ahead of Notre Dame, Florida, Florida State and Portland.

Without a conference tournament, the Big Ten race still has three weekends to run, but the past few days were important in figuring out which teams get the best proverbial lane assignments for that sprint to the finish. Road partners Minnesota and Wisconsin alternated visits to Penn State and Ohio State in a quartet of games among conference leaders.

Ohio State was the clear winner on the field, beating Wisconsin 1-0 on Friday and rallying to beat Minnesota 2-1 in overtime on Lauren Granberg's winner on Sunday. And even though Ohio State and Penn State didn't meet, those results made Penn State the weekend's big loser. The Nittany Lions beat Minnesota on Friday but surrendered the game winner to Wisconsin's Kodee Williams just a minute after tying Sunday's game 2-2 late in the second half.

What it all means is the Nittany Lions are six points behind the Buckeyes and four points behind the Badgers in the Big Ten standings. Penn State should be considered the favorite in three of its final four games (against Indiana, Purdue and Michigan), but the conference title -- and the automatic NCAA bid that comes with it -- is attainable in only the most optimistic scenarios. And those winnable games for Penn State aren't going to be of much help for an RPI that was at 83 entering the weekend. It's far from over for a program with 12 Big Ten titles, but it's a long road and a short clock ahead.

NCAA tournament bubble watch

Stock up:

Oregon State: No team helped itself more than Oregon State, which beat USC and UCLA 1-0 and 3-0, respectively. It's the first-ever sweep of the Los Angeles schools for the Beavers and their first 3-0 Pac-10 start since 1994.

Connecticut: The Huskies hung around against Notre Dame, but they also followed it with a 3-1 win against DePaul. That's four points against teams ranked higher in the RPI.

New Mexico: The rematch of last season's much-publicized encounter with BYU took place without Elizabeth Lambert, who has played in just four games this season. A 1-0 win for the Lobos this season is a big boost for a team that was ranked No. 41 in the RPI entering the weekend.

Stock down:

Alabama: Momentum comes and goes quickly. Alabama dropped costly decisions at Kentucky and Vanderbilt, likely taking it from the good side of the bubble to the bad side.

DePaul: The Blue Demons are still in good shape to earn a bye to the Big East quarterfinals, but losses at Providence and Connecticut dim at-large NCAA hopes.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.