Friday, 7:00 PM
(4) Notre Dame (12-5-2; 4th – ACC; WTSR – 1.28, 5th – ACC)
Valparaiso (14-1-4; 1st – Horizon; WTSR – N/A)
Where Did this Valparaiso Team Come From?
Beats me. Every season, one or two mid-majors come from nowhere to gatecrash the NCAA Tournament. The Crusaders hadn’t won ten games since 2009 before this year. They hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2005. And then they won the Horizon League by an insane nine points. That’s staggering since the league plays just eight league matches.
So How Did That Happen?
It’s not exactly rocket science. Valpo was just markedly better on both offense and defense than any of their league rivals. They averaged almost two goals a game in Horizon matches, while also conceding just three goals in eight league games. The club is probably stronger going forward than in defense, with the golden trio of league player of the year Rita Craven, freshman of the year Vanessa Abad, and top scorer April Cronin proving to be more than enough to power Valpo past their Horizon League rivals. It’s hard to argue that the Crusaders have superstars on defense, but they’ve been more than effective and have given up multiple goals in just one match this season and have four clean sheets in five matches going into Friday.
You’re Going To Dump A Bucket of Cold Water On Me Right Now Though, Right?
Sadly. Like many mid-majors in this competition, Valpo just hasn’t faced the level of competition that Notre Dame is going to provide on Friday. The Crusaders have played just one RPI Top 100 team all season, that being #94 Northern Arizona, who they drew with, way back in August. There’s a real potential for some serious shellshock against the Irish.
Alright Then, So Notre Dame Should Cruise Then…
Well, Notre Dame hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in matches against top opposition this season. There were the early season losses where the Irish took halftime leads but lost to Texas Tech and USC. There was the match where they fell apart against North Carolina. There were emphatic defeats against Virginia and, most recently, Florida State, who made UND look plainly average in brushing the South Bend club aside in the ACC Tournament semi-finals. None of that might mean much this weekend against a likely overmatched opponent, but things start to get real next weekend as the difficulty of the opponents ramps up.
So What Ails The Irish?
It’s the offense. Notre Dame netted just eighteen goals in the league this season. I know, you’re saying “Just?”. But looking at the offensive records of the other ACC Tournament qualifiers reveals some of the Irish’s offensive shortfalls. Consider, they ended up with almost half as many goals in the league as top scorers Virginia. Notre Dame’s top scorer is Lauren Bohaboy, who has netted just seven goals on the season, though four of those came in league play. Take away penalties, and the second leading scorer is center-back Katie Naughton, which is hardly the most positive sign. For better or for worse, Bohaboy sometimes defers on the attack to midfielder Morgan Andrews, who took a whole lot of shots with little end product in the league, while Anna Gilbertson also showed a quick trigger in front of goal but scored just two goals in ten league games. First-year boss Theresa Romagnolo chopped and changed on the frontline throughout the league season, with none of the forwards starting all ten games. Having missed the club’s last two matches, Bohaboy’s status going into the tournament is a question mark as well. With such a fitful offense, someone’s going to need to step up and do it consistently if the Irish are to make any large amount of progress.
Come On, Give Me A Little Hope!
Well, the defense isn’t bad. I’d be a little more optimistic if the club hadn’t shipped three to Florida State in its last game. Before the regular season finale, the Irish had kept five straight clean sheets, though against just one opponent that reached the NCAA Tournament. Katie Naughton has shaken off a disappointing U20 World Cup to take her spot as the leader of the backline and is a threat on set pieces as well. This unit is experienced and talented, with the lone exception to the former being Sabrina Flores, who herself was a revelation as a rookie for the Irish. In goal, there are far worse options than Kaela Little, who can still be guilty of occasional mistakes but who has largely stabilized in between the pipes after an up and down rookie season. Cari Roccaro’s a pretty good shield in front of the back four as well, and Notre Dame should be fine defensively. For a few games at least.
So What About Roccaro?
She’s still this club’s best player by a mile and is a much needed steady influence in the heart of the pitch. She increasingly looks like the “safe” pick at #1 in the 2016 NWSL Draft, even in a very weak draft class. Some might argue she could be used just as well as a target forward or at center-back beside Naughton, but Roccaro’s strength at the spine of the team has been invaluable as the club tries to adapt to their new manager. Odds are, if Notre Dame are to upset the odds and get beyond the Sweet Sixteen, Roccaro and Andrews are going to have to make a breakthrough this month and play at an extremely high level.
Give Me Some Odds of Notre Dame Making It To Boca.
It’s hard to say, because beyond what should be two very winnable games, Notre Dame could beat or lose to each of the three other seeds. Especially in comparison to some of the other pods, where Notre Dame might have run into Virginia, Florida State, or UCLA. The Irish may be on a collision course with three teams that each won their league in 2014, but all can be had on the right day. But will Notre Dame be able to string four “right” days in a row? The biggest liability in truth may be Romagnolo’s lack of experience in this competition. Newbies don’t often make long runs in November. They have an outside shot at rolling all the way to December, but you get the feeling UND’s going to suffer a fatal breakdown before then.