Notre Dame women’s soccer is enjoying their best season in years. A third-place ACC finish marks the program’s highest regular-season finish under Nate Norman. A College Cup run may be in the cards.
A large catalyst for such success has been head coach Nate Norman’s use of the transfer portal. Norman brought home two northern Indiana natives who have added invaluable graduate experience to a Notre Dame squad still new to the pressures of a title challenge.
The first player to return to South Bend was Northwestern transfer Mackenzie Wood. Hailing from Granger, Wood didn’t anticipate a return when she first committed to Northwestern in 2017: “I had no idea,” Wood said. “Even in the transfer portal, I had no idea (that going to Notre Dame was an option). But looking back at it now, I think this was the best decision I could have made, and I’m really happy about it.”
After four years as the starting goalkeeper for the Wildcats, Wood opted to enter the transfer portal. Boasting years of experience and an impressive shot stopping record, the Irish leapt at the chance to bring Wood home, and she’s proven to be a shrewd addition. Initially rotating with junior Ashley Naylor, Wood cemented herself as Notre Dame’s nailed-on number one during a six-game stretch from late September to late October. The graduate student conceded just four total goals in ACC play.
A record like Wood’s is impressive given the little time she has had to build chemistry with her backline. She attributes her strong command of the Irish defense to the team’s family atmosphere which helped her integrate quickly, even with just one summer to get to know the squad.
“I didn’t really get to know the team until preseason, so it was a huge difference for me, and I knew that coming in,” said Wood. “So I really just tried to get myself out there. I know it’s my hometown, but I really tried bonding with them outside, off the field. Being on the field (that chemistry) has been huge. They’ve just been so welcoming, so communication has been great between all of us.”
Wood wasn’t the only graduate transfer Notre Dame brought back to St. Joseph county. Her fellow former Penn High School teammate and Granger resident Kristina Lynch also opted to enter the transfer portal from Florida State. With two national titles under her belt, it’s no surprise that Norman jumped at the opportunity to bring the forward to South Bend.
While Lynch hasn’t been able to make an on-field impact yet due to an offseason injury, her importance in the locker room shouldn’t be understated. Lynch remarked that the Irish squad have looked more poised against top opposition this year than they were when she played against them with Florida State, playing with a confidence she saw slowly emerging from afar as an undergrad.
“I have to admit, my entire career at FSU I’d watch our games, and the only other team I’d watch was Notre Dame,” Lynch said. “I knew some players on the team, I knew the coaches, I knew the style of play, so in my free time before our games, I’d be in the locker room watching Notre Dame play. And I did see over the years their progression. I saw things change, I saw the way Nate coached and how he added new things, and I remember saying to myself ‘wow, this is a dangerous team.’ As soon as I went into the transfer portal, I knew it fit my strengths, and it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
While they may not connect often on the pitch, with Lynch at forward and Wood in goal, the pairing’s bond off the field has been difficult to break and was a large reason why both chose to return to the area to finish their college careers.
“We’ve played together our whole lives,” said Lynch. “We’ve been best friends since we were 6- or 7-years-old. We joked after high school that we’d never have the chance to play together again, and we were really bummed, and then all of a sudden this opportunity arose. We’re roommates now. Me, Mackenzie and my brother Ryan on the baseball team hang out almost every day, and it’s just so much fun, and we’re so happy to be back.”
With post-season play looming, Wood and Lynch’s story isn’t finished just yet. The pairing won a state title in each of their final two years at Penn High School. With the Irish ranked No. 4 nationally, they’ll be gunning to once again cap off their shared career with another trophy come December.