ND making itself at home in the ACC
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Notre Dame knew it would have its hands full moving to the best soccer conference in the country.
The ACC has its hands full with the Fighting Irish, too.
Making its first trip to Fetzer Field as a conference foe, No. 8 Notre Dame upset No. 1 North Carolina 1-0 on Sunday and ended a 13-game unbeaten streak for the Tar Heels.
For just about all of the 300-plus soccer-playing programs in Division I, Fetzer Field, with its distinctive Carolina blue track and even more distinctive three-story collection of national championship banners, is the last place to come to make a good first impression. For Notre Dame, a trip here it isn't exactly a guaranteed win, but it isn't a guaranteed loss, either. And that's saying something.
No team has beaten North Carolina more often in Chapel Hill than Notre Dame. Sunday was its fifth win at Fetzer Field and its sixth overall against a program that has just 50 losses in any setting in 35 years under Anson Dorrance.
"They just believe that we can when we come here for some reason," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said of his teams, which have won three of their past four games in Chapel Hill. "I don't know why we've had such good luck here. I think a few years back, starting maybe when the Irish won [the 1995 national championship], I just think our kids started to realize we had broken down that invincibility barrier a lot of teams have against Carolina."
Notre Dame struggled for possession in a loss at home against UCLA earlier this season, a troubling sign for Sunday given how much UCLA then struggled to maintain possession in a loss last week against North Carolina. But after the Tar Heels applied some early pressure Sunday, largely through the energy of Meg Morris on the flank, the Fighting Irish gained a foothold. They had enough of the run of play and created enough trouble in front of goal, in fact, that North Carolina shifted out of its trademark 3-4-3 formation and into a 4-2-3-1 before the game was even 15 minutes old.
The change didn't prevent the Fighting Irish from pushing again into North Carolina's end in the 22nd minute and forcing Tar Heels defender Hanna Gardner to put the ball out of play on the sideline. After the ensuing Irish throw-in came back out to the right sideline, Brittany Von Rueden sent a cross back into the box. Freshman Morgan Andrews did the rest to give her team a 1-0 lead.
"She had this beautiful, perfect serve," Andrews said. "You know those serves where you know it's coming right to you and you know you're going to hit that in the net? That was my feeling. I was just like 'I've got this' and I headed it in."
It was the highlight of a strong all-around performance from the freshman midfielder who arrived in South Bend as the nation's top recruit. It just wasn't the day's best performance. Notre Dame sophomore Cari Roccaro didn't get many chances to celebrate her work, but the 90 minutes of defense she put in against North Carolina All-American and fellow Long Islander Crystal Dunn were simply brilliant.
"We wanted [Roccaro] to just mark her out of the game and keep her from being a factor," Waldrum said of the holding midfielder's assignment with Dunn. "And even though Crystal got some shots off, she didn't get the kind of looks that she likes to have, I think. I thought Cari did a great job on her today. She was by far the player of the game, for me. ...
"Dunn's a handful. She's a player at another level than the college game."
Just how fine a line opponents walk against Dunn was apparent on more than one occasion. Just after Notre Dame scored the opening goal, Dunn took off on about a 40-yard run to the edge of Notre Dame's 18-yard box. Roccaro picked her up at that point and seemed to have the situation sized up, only to see Dunn put on an addition burst of speed, get to the end line and deliver a cross that led to a scramble in front of goal and a shaky clearance.
Minutes later, Dunn was at it again, pulled down for a free kick just outside the 18-yard box after seizing a rare midfield miscue from the Fighting Irish and beating three defenders down the field.
On it went as the Tar Heels pressed and pressed for a tying goal in the second half, Dunn doing all she could but having to work just a little too hard for opportunities that didn't quite find their mark.
A starter alongside Dunn on the United States team that won the Under-20 World Cup last year, Roccaro knew how good she was even then. After watching her friend play for the full national team for much of this year, she also knew how much more difficult her challenge had become.
"I know how much she's grown even in the past year," Roccaro said. "Now she's fighting against Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan in practice, so I knew that I'm going to have to live up to that standard and that level of play. It was difficult. She gave me a run for my money. She had some of the play; I had some.
"She's a great player, and I love her, she's one of my best friends."
Too great for the assistant referee to keep up, as it turned out. As well as Notre Dame played Sunday, the final score should have been 1-1. In one of the rare moments she broke free for a clean look at goal, Dunn blasted a shot in the 62nd minute that clipped off the bottom of the crossbar and, as replays showed, bounced well over the goal line before it rebounded back into the field of play.
Roccaro did as good a job against Dunn as any college player will do this season, and it still took a little luck to escape unscathed.
"There were times where I was like, 'Oh, I got her; I'll just keep her here.' And then she could spin out and she's off," Roccaro said. "Her first step is so quick, and she can just get a shot off out of nowhere. She almost had a few on us today. She was the best player on the field. She's amazing."
Notre Dame's ACC adventure began ignominiously. Barely five minutes into its first-ever game in the conference at NC State on Thursday, the Fighting Irish fell behind when a free kick from nearer midfield than any danger zone somehow snuck in the back of the net. But they kept their composure, equalized 10 minutes later and went on to a comfortable 3-1 win. Then came Sunday afternoon.
North Carolina, which played without injured starter Alexa Newfield and lost freshman standout Amber Munerlyn to a significant facial injury in the game's opening minute, will be back and be just fine in the long run. The days of undefeated seasons are gone, not because of any lack of talent on their part but because the conference that grew up around them is too tough.
All the more because of one of its newest members.
"I think every little girl has dreamed about playing with or against UNC," Andrews said. "For me, I've always dreamed about playing against them. It just means so much to be able to have this opportunity to be on this field right now."