Aug. 20, 2010

Courtesy of Notre Dame

NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- Notre Dame junior forward and Hermann Trophy candidate Melissa Henderson (Garland, Texas/Berkner) scored an unassisted goal with 11:18 remaining, lifting the fourth-ranked Fighting Irish to a hard-fought 1-0 win over rising Big Ten Conference power Minnesota on a hot Friday night at Alumni Stadium in the season opener for both teams. With the victory, Notre Dame improves to 20-2-1 all-time in season openers, with a 13-1-1 mark at home and a 10-1-1 record in the 12-year tenure of head coach Randy Waldrum.

Henderson's goal tipped the scales in Notre Dame's favor after a well-played, evenly-matched contest that, at times, took on the feel of an NCAA tournament game. The teams each took 15 shots, with the Fighting Irish doubling up the Golden Gophers in shots on goal, 8-4. Minnesota won the corner kick battle, 9-5 (with eight of those coming in the first half), while Notre Dame was whistled for 11 of the 16 fouls on the night.

Senior goalkeeper Nikki Weiss (Redding, Conn./Immaculate) earned the shutout between the pipes for the Fighting Irish (1-0), making three saves and also benefitting from a team save by sophomore defender Jazmin Hall (Highland Village, Texas/Marcus). Meanwhile, Minnesota netminder Cat Parkhill turned aside seven shots in the contest for the visitors (0-1).

"I was pleased with the amount of fight and intensity we showed tonight," Waldrum said. "It definitely wasn't our best overall performance, and we gave away a lot of chances, particularly with the number of corner kicks they took. But we also had our share of opportunities and Melissa did a fine job of cashing it her look in the second half. It's always good to get started on the right foot, especially against a team as talented as Minnesota, and we're going to have another strong opponent on our hands on Sunday when Milwaukee gets to town."

Notre Dame and Minnesota were meeting for the first time since the 2008 NCAA tournament, when the Fighting Irish edged out the Golden Gophers by the same 1-0 score in overtime on a frigid November evening. While the weather on Friday might have been quite different than that night two years ago, the level of play, including the defensive muscle exhibited by both teams was virtually identical. It also seems to have become a recurring theme in this abbreviated series, which Notre Dame now leads 2-1, with all three games being played in South Bend and all three being decided by 1-0 margins.

After Minnesota earned a pair of early corner kicks and had a header by Kylie Kallman drift over the crossbar, the Fighting Irish got their first looks from the flag, with senior midfielder Rose Augustin (Silver Lake, Ohio/Walsh Jesuit) giving Notre Dame its first good chance on a service to freshman midfielder Mandy Laddish (Lee's Summit, Mo./Lee's Summit) at the top of the penalty area. Laddish made a nifty move to keep possession and create space, but her right-footed laser just sailed high of the target (11:32).

Less than five minutes later, Augustin was at it again, this time sending a free kick to the edge of the box, where Henderson delivered a through-ball to freshman midfielder Elizabeth Tucker (Jacksonville, Fla./Bishop Kenny), who was in the express lane toward goal. However, the rookie's left-footed shot from eight yards out was swallowed up by Parkhill on a dive to her right.

Minnesota's best chance of the first half (and, as it turned out, for the entire game) came in the 22nd minute, when Tamara Strahota got loose and volleyed a corner kick by Katie Bethke towards the left post. While Weiss got hung up in traffic near the six-yard box, Hall stood fast like a military sentry at her post and re-directed Strahota's scoring try out of harm's way.

The Notre Dame faithful thought they had reason to cheer a goal with less than 12 minutes to go in the period, as Henderson turned past her defender at the top right of the box and whistled a seed that rippled the outside of the net, fooling many into believing she'd found pay dirt. As it turned out, it would be at almost that exact same time in the second half (approximately 11:30 to go) when the Fighting Irish striker would convert her gamewinner.

Notre Dame almost got on the board in the opening moments of the second half, as Augustin delivered a pinpoint service from the left flank that sailed all the way to an almost-unmarked Henderson on the right edge of the six-yard box. However, her point-blank shot was stopped with a reflex save by Parkhill, and Henderson's rebound attempt was smothered and cleared by the Gophers' defense.

Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish defense was doing well to keep Minnesota's offensive chances to a minimum, cleaning up its mistakes of the first half and allowing five shots in the first 35 minutes of the second half, with all coming from distance or tough angles. At the same time, Notre Dame continued to rachet up its offensive pressure, and the Fighting Irish were finally able to bust through in the 79th minute.

A slick succession of passes by Notre Dame in the offensive third worked the ball across the top of the penalty box, before Henderson ended up with possession near the penalty spot. She then put on a fancy dribbling display with her back to goal, turning to her left and then back to right and uncorking a low left-footed blast that beat Parkhill inside the far left post.

After the score, Notre Dame did well to keep possession and work the clock, but the Golden Gophers did get a pair of looks on frame in the closing 10 minutes. Yet, Weiss was equal to the task on both chances by Strahota and Shari Eckstrom, sealing the Fighting Irish victory.