Heading Towards Success

Author: J.J. Post

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Halfway through the 2022 college soccer season, Notre Dame women’s soccer is on pace for their best season yet under fifth-year head coach Nate Norman. 

The team had a perfect start to non-conference play, winning eight consecutive games to match the program’s best start to a season since 2008. This eight-game stretch included victories over No. 19 St. Louis and No. 22 Wisconsin teams as the Irish conceded just three goals. 

Although the Irish currently hold a 1-2 record against conference opponents, a statement win over No. 2 Virginia provides plenty of hope that an impressive back end of the season is still to come. 

Such a strong defensive record has been anchored by a rotation of two goalkeepers rather than one consistent option. Ashley Naylor and Mackenzie Wood have split minutes in the net, with each making five starts. The pairing have notched similar numbers, with Naylor allowing more goals total but also making more saves. 

In front of Naylor and Wood, an experienced backline has been crucial to the Irish’s success. Notre Dame returned all five of last season’s starters across the backline, including a ready-made general in junior centerback Eva Gaetino. Settling in between fellow center defenders Waniya Hudson and Leah Klenke, Gaetino has been crucial as both a permanent threat on set pieces as well as a quality distributor who can dictate the squad’s tempo from defense. Kati Druzina and Brianna Martinez have proved tireless forces as wingbacks, providing both defensive structure as well as offensive output. 

In the midfield, Notre Dame has seen some rotation from the 2021 squad, but Coach Norman’s preferred trio hasn’t seemed to miss a step so far in 2022. Laney Matriano and Erin Hohnstein have held down the base of the unit, helping to shield the backline and keep shape in transition. Kiki Van Zanten has worked her way back into a starting role after primarily maintaining a reserve role in 2021, and has made her mark with two goals and two assists. Korbin Albert rounds out the unit, being given the liberty to float just about anywhere on the pitch in order to find space and link up play. 

Van Zanten’s emergence as a strong option in the midfield has been vital because it has allowed Maddie Mercado to help take the mantle up front. With last season’s top scorer Sammi Fisher departing for the NWSL, the Irish had a hole the size of 32 points and an all-ACC talent in their center forward partnership. 

Mercado moved up from attacking midfield to fill that role, and has filled it with aplomb, tying for the team lead in goals with six. Three of those goals have been game winners, including Notre Dame’s late score to shock Virginia. She is partnered with Olivia Wingate, who returned for a graduate year to help lead the Notre Dame line following a successful 2021 season. Though her instinctive chemistry with Fisher will likely never be replicated, the graduate student has come out firing in 2022, tying her career season high for goals with six in just ten games. 

Depth from the bench has proven equally important in Irish success as the strength from the starters. Coach Norman’s system often requires the deployment of up to 10 subs per game, keeping legs fresh to shield from the fatiguing effects of a constant press. Notre Dame’s bench has proven capable of keeping up with such demands, often rising to the occasion in the biggest games. 

Ellie Ospeck has been a revelation off the bench, converting from a forward to a fullback and entering a strong run of form in the process. Katie Coyle has also provided valuable minutes down the flanks. Berkley Mensik has been a sparkplug all over the field, being used at both wingback and striker in her rookie year. Ashley Zugay, Maddie Mooney and Kaylie Ronan have provided quality relief minutes along the backline. Sophia Fisher has helped round out depth in central midfield. Audrey Weiss and Paige Peltier have both been deployed up top to help give the Irish a different dimension in attack. 

Top to bottom, it’s difficult to say this isn’t Norman’s best team in his time as the head coach of Notre Dame Women’s Soccer. The Irish have both the high-end talent in the likes of Korbin Albert and MAC Herman Award Watchlist honoree Eva Gaetino to go blow-for-blow with the ACC’s elite, but they also have the depth to ensure the system holds up for a full ninety minutes even when starters rest. Though Notre Dame’s road to an ACC title doesn’t get easier down the line, their win against Virginia ensures there’s plenty of hope in South Bend for the Irish to win the league.