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Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Irish gaining steam after slow start

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. -- To say the curtain rising on the second act of Notre Dame's season coincided with the team discovering a natural playmaker in midfield is close to the truth, but it isn't quite right.

Jessica Schuveiller
Notre Dame is unbeaten since Jessica Schuveiller's move from defense into midfield.

Sure, the defending national champions had become the unranked defending champions by the time senior Jessica Schuveiller shifted from her familiar spot in the back line to the midfield in late September. And yes, the Fighting Irish have climbed back into the mix with a 3-0-1 record in four games since she made the move. The timing is inescapable. It's the part about the new midfield star that needs tweaking.

It's not so much that Schuveiller creates plays as she leaves them littered in her wake, relentlessly pushing forward for a team until recently headed backward.

"It definitely was a spark to get her up there," Notre Dame All-American Melissa Henderson said. "She's a great attacking presence, and I think she brings a whole different aspect to the game, especially when we needed it. Coming into the season, it started out a little slow, and moving her up, it gave us so many more chances, and I think it gave us a little more confidence."

Leads will do that for a team's confidence. Schuveiller has scored four goals in the past five games, matching the total she scored in starting the first 88 games of her career as a defender (she's played 8,005 of a possible 8,529 minutes in her college career). The Fighting Irish, in turn, scored multiple goals in four of those games, something they managed just four times in their first 11 games. That's the tangible part of the equation. What's immeasurable is just how much the Fighting Irish needed a spark.

Rarely one to take losing in good humor, Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum was nonetheless sanguine after a 2-1 overtime loss at North Carolina in the season's second week. The Tar Heels got the win that day, but Waldrum felt his team had the better play -- a sentiment North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance echoed at the time. Waldrum said this week that he felt the same after a 2-1 loss at Stanford in September, a game the Fighting Irish led with 10 minutes to play and which the coach contended was a better performance than the one that earned a national championship when the same teams met last season.

Waldrum seemed to think then and now that the Fighting Irish have the talent to play with anyone. Experience is an issue, with four sophomores, two freshmen and a new starter in goal. Talent is not.

Yet quality losses early gave way to suspect results. A 1-0 loss at home against Louisville ended a 62-match unbeaten streak in Big East competition. A 1-1 draw at South Florida came after the Fighting Irish had outscored another of their newest Big East foes by a 12-0 margin in three previous meetings.

"I think what happened after we lost a few of those games early, I think some of the kids kind of lost that confidence a little bit," Waldrum said. "And then we went through that spell where we lost to Louisville, we tied South Florida, and those are some games we just never lose. So I think we had to fight our way back, now, to gain some confidence."

A related ramification of the trip to face Stanford and Santa Clara was the loss of redshirt junior Courtney Barg to a foot injury. A gifted midfielder for whom the "natural playmaker" label is appropriate, Barg has been beset by injuries the past two seasons. Her decision last year to eschew a redshirt and return after missing two months helped reverse a late-season funk and propel the Fighting Irish to their title run.

With Barg again sidelined, the Fighting Irish lacked stability in the holding midfield spot she had occupied. The offense stalled, the midfield lacked a defensive presence and a back line thus forced to be perfect increasingly struggled to meet that demand in a 1-2-2 stretch that dropped them out of the top 25 for the first time since 2007.

Taking the best defender out of the middle of the back line in search of a solution was a gamble, handing a starting job to another freshman in Sammy Scofield, but Waldrum felt he had to try something. Enter Schuveiller, who last spent any meaningful time in midfield on her club team as a sophomore in high school.

Randy Waldrum
Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum feels his team has an abundance of talent, if not experience, so he wasn't overly concerned by the Irish's sluggish start.

"I guess the first thought was you have some big shoes to fill without Courtney Barg there," Schuveiller said. "I took a lot of time watching games that she had played early on this season and just seeing how she moved with and without the ball. I kind of tried to pick up as much as I could from there. When [Waldrum] came to me, I was excited because it's exciting to get into the attack. Even from my center back position, I like to get involved in the attack sometimes."

She hides the excitement well. Schuveiller still carries herself with the glass-half-empty wariness of a defender, for whom a moment's lapse erases a day's worth of good defending. She scored a goal-of-the-year candidate against Connecticut, a one-time volley from 20-plus yards, and barely cracked a smile. In a recent game against Seton Hall, her biggest display of emotion came not after scoring yet another goal but in clapping after she was slammed to the turf and earned a free kick in Seton Hall's half of the field.

It's not a bad lead to follow for a team that needs confidence but also can't afford to get too excited about recent success against the middle tier of the conference (a 0-0 draw at Rutgers to close the final road trip of the regular season offered an all-too-familiar combination of possession dominance and missed opportunities).

Schuveiller and Barg, who played her first minutes in a month, sat together on the turf after the win at Seton Hall, two tired Texans who have been friends since the second grade nearing the end of their time together. It hasn't been the dream season they might have wanted to close out their careers, but they keep moving forward.

"To be honest, I don't even know how she got out there with the pain she's going through right now," Schuveiller said of Barg. "I love when she's on the field, just like a calming presence.

"I definitely know that if anyone got into a tackle [against Barg] too hard that I'd be the first one to step up to them."

That about sums up Schuveiller. And perhaps that's why you dismiss the defending champions at your own peril.

"I think there's a story still left out there to be told about Notre Dame this year," Waldrum said. "I'm OK with everybody writing us off and everything else. I think at the end of the day, we'll be where we want to be."

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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