Irish unanimous choice to win title

Published 9:09 am Wednesday, August 12, 2009

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The Notre Dame women’s soccer team has been unanimously selected as the favorite to win the 2008 BIG EAST Conference National Division title, according to a vote of the league’s 16 head coaches released Tuesday afternoon.

The Fighting Irish picked up the maximum 120 points, including all 15 possible first-place tallies (coaches may not vote for their own teams), in the balloting, as they seek their 13th BIG EAST regular-season crown and seventh in a row – eight of the previous 12 (1999-2001, 2003, 2005-08) have been divisional championships (including the past four), while the other four were overall regular-season titles (1995-97, 2004).

Notre Dame returns 19 monogram winners, including seven starters, from last season’s team that posted a school-record 26-1-0 ledger and advanced to the NCAA national championship match for the seventh time (third in the past five seasons). The Fighting Irish also went 11-0-0 in the BIG EAST a year ago, followed by three consecutive shutouts in the BIG EAST Championship, capped off with a thrilling 1-0 overtime victory over Connecticut in the conference title match to secure Notre Dame’s 10th BIG EAST postseason crown.

“It’s an honor and a tremendous sign of respect that the other conference coaches have voted us in this position in the preseason poll,” 11th-year Notre Dame head coach Randy Waldrum said. “Every season is unique and brings its own challenges. Without question, the BIG EAST is one of the country’s top women’s soccer conferences and we’re going to be tested each time out. We’re making some good progress through the first week of training and we’re looking forward to the start of the 2009 season.”

The conference coaches also chose sophomore forward Melissa Henderson (Garland, Texas/Berkner) as the BIG EAST Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, marking the fifth consecutive season a Notre Dame player has earned that distinction (Katie Thorlakson – 2005; Kerri Hanks – 2006 & 2007; Brittany Bock – 2008). Henderson, who also was a unanimous selection to the Preseason All-BIG EAST Team, rang up 17 goals and two assists (36 points) as a rookie last year, ranking second in the conference in both goals and points.

She collected first-team Freshman All-America honors from Soccer America, as well as second-team all-Great Lakes Region and first-team all-BIG EAST accolades. In addition, she was named the BIG EAST Rookie of the Year and was voted as the BIG EAST Championship Most Outstanding Offensive Player after scoring the “golden goal” in overtime of Notre Dame’s title-match win over Connecticut.

Three other Fighting Irish players joined Henderson on the Preseason All-BIG EAST Team. Senior midfielder Courtney Rosen (Brecksville, Ohio/Hathaway Brown) was a first-team all-Great Lakes Region and second-team all-conference choice last season after registering three goals and five assists (11 points), with all three marks winding up as new career highs.

Junior defender/midfielder Lauren Fowlkes (Lee’s Summit, Mo./St. Teresa’s Academy) had one goal and one assist (three points) in 18 matches last season, but made her biggest impact with the United States Under-20 National Team, starting on the American backline and helping the Stars & Stripes earn a gold medal at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Chile last December.

Sophomore midfielder/forward Courtney Barg (Plano, Texas/Plano West) emerged as one of the most versatile and cerebral players on the Fighting Irish roster last season, peaking in the NCAA College Cup when she scored the only goal in Notre Dame’s 1-0 national semifinal victory over fifth-ranked Stanford. Barg, who finished her rookie season with three goals and three assists (nine points), also earned a place on the NCAA College Cup All-Tournament Team.

West Virginia earned top honors in the BIG EAST American Division with 118 points (13 first-place votes), according to Tuesday’s preseason coaches poll.

The Mountaineers were one of four conference teams to be selected for last year’s NCAA Championship (advancing to the second round), along with Notre Dame, preseason National Division runner-up Rutgers (one first-place vote, 101 points), which advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament, and preseason American Division third-place choice Marquette (95 points), which was ousted in the first round of the ’08 NCAA Championship.

Last year’s BIG EAST Championship finalist Connecticut was predicted to be the runner-up in the American Division behind WVU, earning three first-place votes and 104 total points.

The Fighting Irish will face Wisconsin in their regular-season opener on Aug. 21 (7:30 p.m. kickoff) at Alumni Field.