Nov. 26, 2010

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics

STILLWATER, Okla. - Freshman midfielder Elizabeth Tucker (Jacksonville, Fla./Bishop Kenny) scored a pair of second-half goals and the No. 7/10 Notre Dame women's soccer team put together a stellar defensive performance to blank sixth-ranked Oklahoma State, 2-0 in an NCAA Championship quarterfinal match on a chilly Friday evening before a record crowd of 2,660 fans at the Cowgirl Soccer Complex in Stillwater, Okla.

The victory secured Notre Dame's fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Women's College Cup, as well as its sixth in seven years and 12th in program history. The Fighting Irish next will take on No. 17/19 Ohio State in a national semifinal contest on Friday (Dec. 3) at either 4:00 or 6:30 p.m. (ET) from WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. -- the exact time and full TV coverage will be determined once the last quarterfinal (Washington at Boston College) is played Saturday afternoon.

Tucker's two scores (the second multi-goal match of her young career) wrote the latest chapter in a remarkable postseason story for Notre Dame, a journey that now has seen the Fighting Irish defeat three consecutive ranked opponents (No. 22 USC, No. 3/4 North Carolina and No. 6 Oklahoma State), and defeat two higher-seeded teams (top-seeded UNC and third-seeded OSU) on the road in its last two matches. It's the second consecutive season in which Notre Dame has needed to go on the road to win its NCAA quarterfinal match, with last year's contest at Florida State yielding eerie similarities to this year -- a sixth-ranked opponent playing the day after Thanksgiving in front of an energized home crowd and the Fighting Irish riding a complete defensive effort to a 2-0 victory.

Senior forward/co-captain Lauren Fowlkes (Lee's Summit, Mo./St. Teresa's Academy) set up Tucker's first goal in the 63rd minute, and junior forward Melissa Henderson (Garland, Texas/Berkner) created the opportunity for Tucker's clinching score with 20 seconds remaining. It was Henderson's career-high (and team-high-tying) 10th assist of the season, to go along with 17 goals, making Notre Dame the first program in the country this season with two players posting double-digit goals and assists -- senior forward/midfielder Rose Augustin (Silver Lake, Ohio/Walsh Jesuit) has logged career highs of 11 goals and 10 assists.

Senior goalkeeper Nikki Weiss (Redding, Conn./Immaculate) teamed with her back line to expertly manage the Fighting Irish defensive third, with Weiss being called upon to make just one save on the night. It was Weiss' career-high eighth solo shutout of the season and Notre Dame's 13th clean sheet of the season.

The Fighting Irish (19-2-2) finished with an 18-7 edge in total shots over Oklahoma State, including a 5-1 advantage in shots on goal. Notre Dame also held a 7-2 margin in corner kicks, while each side was whistled for six fouls in the match.

"We are extremely excited to be going back to the College Cup," said Fighting Irish head coach Randy Waldrum, who is taking his eighth Notre Dame squad to the national semifinals. "I want to thank Oklahoma State. They were great hosts, and it is a mixed feeling for me. I wanted to win and advance, but I have a lot of connections in Oklahoma from my coaching at the University of Tulsa. But we are very excited to be going.

"The history of the program breeds players that are used to winning big games, either at home or on the road," he continued. "Going into North Carolina, we felt we were better and coming in here (Friday) we felt we were better. That is no disrespect to the teams that we played because I think they are very good teams. Our kids just had that experience that has been passed on from older players, and the expectation level is up there. Our season isn't a successful season unless we get to the final four."

Making their seventh consecutive NCAA quarterfinal appearance, the Fighting Irish looked every bit the experienced team in the first half against an Oklahoma State side that was making its first-ever trip to the eighth-finals. Notre Dame outshot the Cowgirls, 10-1 in the first half, including both shots on goal, but the Fighting Irish weren't able to crack the sturdy OSU defense.

The best chance for either side in the first half came just past the half-hour mark, when two Cowgirl defenders collided while going for a loose ball near the top of the box. The ball squirted to junior midfielder Courtney Barg (Plano, Texas/Plano West), who chipped back to the far left side for Henderson at the edge of the box. The Notre Dame striker made a quick move to create an angle on the left end line and fired a rising shot from 12 yards out that OSU goalkeeper Adrianna French neatly parried off the top of the crossbar and out of harm's way.

Oklahoma State (20-4-2) seemed to settle down in the second half and mounted several offensive challenges in the opening moments of the period. However, the Fighting Irish defense held fast and shots were few and far between for the hosts in the final third.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame continued to keep pounding on the door at the other end, and it was one of the youngest Fighting Irish players that finally kicked it in. Fowlkes started the play with an overlapping run down the left side, then working free for a crisp service into the area that eluded several OSU defenders. Tucker found herself unmarked in front and re-directed the cross low inside the right post past a screened Franch at 62:46.

With the first olive out of the jar, Oklahoma State now was forced to adopt a more aggressive offensive posture and for the ensuing few minutes after the goal, the Cowgirls carried the run of play. Speedy frontliner Krista Lopez had arguably OSU's best chance of the night in the 66th minute, getting loose on a run down the right channel, but the Fighting Irish defense ushered her further wide of the goal and Lopez' sharp-angle shot was tracked well by Weiss at the near right post.

Notre Dame had a chance to ice the win with less than six minutes remaining, as Augustin worked a textbook give-and-go sequence with Henderson before uncorking a rising left-footed shot that beat Franch but was denied by the crossbar.

Henderson then got loose behind the Oklahoma State defense in the 88th minute, running on to a lead pass on her own side of the midfield stripe and racing nearly 50 yards to goal before Franch charged off her line and was able to get enough of the ball to knock it wide over the end line for a corner kick.

Undeterred, Henderson continued to keep OSU bottled up in its own end of the pitch with a series of clever ball-possession plays. Yet, when Fowlkes played the ball wide on the right for Henderson with 30 seconds remaining, the Cowgirl defense overextended and the Fighting Irish striker exploited the breach with a well-timed run to the right end line. She then snapped a right-footed cross through the six-yard box, where a gaggle of Notre Dame players were waiting to convert on the tantalizing opportunity before Tucker seized the chance at 89:40.

The Fighting Irish now get set to tangle with Ohio State for the sixth time in program history in next Friday's College Cup semifinal. Notre Dame has won the previous five series meetings with the Buckeyes, the most recent coming on Nov. 15, 2002, when the Fighting Irish earned a 3-1 win over Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA Championship at old Alumni Field in South Bend.