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Notre Dame makes unexpected journey to final four

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Elmira Notre Dame seniors Taylor Gray and Courteney Crater talk about playing in the New York state Class C semifinals after practice Wednesday. Andrew Legare / Staff Video

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Elmira Notre Dame’s girls soccer program has reached such a point of consistent excellence it is expected nearly every year the Crusaders will contend for a Section 4 title and possibly be a factor in the state tournament.

Ironically enough, this year’s final four team was a rare exception. Too many young players and too many key players lost to graduation had even the team’s 32nd-year head coach thinking November soccer would be out of the question when practice began in August.

“I think this team making it this far is probably the biggest surprise of any team we’ve ever had,” Steve Weber said after Wednesday’s practice. “I think just about anybody would agree to that. We don’t really believe in rebuilding, but at the same time there’s years when your goals are set a little differently than others. This wasn’t a goal of ours to make it this far. We’re happy that it occurred, but we tried to be realistic.”

Now the reality is the Crusaders (14-3-1) stand two wins away from the second state title in team history and one victory from a second appearance in the Class C state finals in the last three seasons. Notre Dame meets Section 2 champion Stillwater (19-2) in a semifinal at 3 p.m. Saturday at Homer High School. The winner faces either Section 11 champ Southold/Greenport or Section 6’s Allegany-Limestone, who meet at 5:30 Saturday, in the title game at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on the same field.

“We didn’t think we’d make it to sectionals, so the fact that we’re getting this far in the season is really amazing,” Crusaders senior goalie Taylor Gray said.

There’s a lot to be said for doing what nobody expected you to do.

“It’s even better when people don’t expect it and you come from the bottom,” senior forward/midfielder Courteney Crater said. “It makes your hard work pay off. It just feels good because no one expected it.”

Girls soccer is part of a busy weekend for Elmira-area teams in state competition.

Elmira High School’s football team (6-4) will try to continue its late-season surge when it meets unbeaten Section 3 champion Cicero-North Syracuse (10-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday in a Class AA state quarterfinal at Union-Endicott’s Ty Cobb Stadium. Elmira was a 38-31 winner over Binghamton last week, giving the Express its third sectional title in the last five seasons.

In Ontario County, several area runners will compete in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Cross Country Championships at Wayne Central School, starting at 9 a.m. Among the storylines will be attempts by the Corning boys in Class A and the Watkins Glen boys in Class C to repeat as state champions. Both were dominant last week in taking Section 4 titles in their classes at Chenango Valley State Park.

Notre Dame finds its groove

The two-time defending Section 4 champion Crusaders opened the season with six straight wins, but it wasn’t until their first loss Weber thought this group might be better than advertised. Notre Dame played Class B’s Waverly down to the wire, falling by a 1-0 score to a team that ended up losing just once. He said a 3-0 loss two weeks later to Waverly left him even more impressed with his players.

“Those games were probably the ones that started giving us confidence,” Weber said.

Notre Dame struggled somewhat late in the regular season, playing Newark Valley to a tie and narrowly beating a sub-.500 Watkins Glen team, 3-2. The good news was the third-seeded Crusaders had a chance to rest, heal and catch their breath before sectionals. They were at their best in the Section 4 tournament, beating Newark Valley by a 5-0 score, rolling past second-seeded Unadilla Valley, 6-2, and holding off top-seeded Trumansburg, 2-1, in the championship game.

“We just played at a whole other level and we were playing more together than we normally do,” Crater said of the win over Trumansburg. “Everyone came in, just played hard. We learned more strategy and a 2-1 game just kept us focused and more motivated to go farther.”

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Elmira Notre Dame was a 2-1 winner over Little Falls in a Class C girls soccer regional final Nov. 3 at Corning Memorial Stadium. Andrew Legare / Staff Video

That victory was followed by another 2-1 triumph, this one coming against Little Falls in the regional final Nov. 3 at Corning Memorial Stadium. Last year Little Falls ended the Crusaders’ season with a 2-0 state quarterfinal win.

“It definitely was a surprise,” Gray said of the last two games. “We were trying to win, we weren’t expecting to win, though. The more successful we’ve become I think the more excitement has built up within us.”

Returning first-team all-state forward Laurel Vargas, who has 98 varsity goals as a junior, joined senior Jillian Perrault in scoring the goals for Notre Dame against Little Falls. Those two and freshman forward Ellie Mustico have combined for 14 of the Crusaders’ 15 postseason goals, but the high level of play from end to end is what has Notre Dame in this position.

Gray, who had played forward until this season, has had several saves that have been both clutch and acrobatic, particularly in the last two games. Vargas has moved to midfield and even defender as needed while the back end as a whole has raised its toughness as the competition has grown stronger.

“Our passing has gotten great,” Crater said. “We know each other more now, like the way people play, so we know where people are going to be. I feel like we just know each other better as players.”

With a roster that includes a seventh-grader, two eighth-graders and five freshmen, Notre Dame has used each practice and game to put itself in this position. Even more impressive, those young players have stayed poised as the stakes have been raised.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever seen 17 players, all 17, improve so much,” Weber said. “The young ones are still really inspired and they’re working so hard. You can just see how much better their touch is getting. As a group, the entire group has improved a lot. If not, we wouldn’t have made it this far. We couldn’t have just improved in one aspect of our team and got to where we are right now. It took a collective effort.”

The right mix

There is a rare mix of people with this Notre Dame team. Steve Weber has been joined this year as co-head coach by his son, Kevin Weber, who was previously a valued assistant. Steve Weber is fifth in New York state girls soccer history with a win total that now stands at 473 and this year’s sectional championship was the ninth for one of his soccer teams. The 2003 squad won a state title.

During Wednesday’s intrasquad scrimmage, both father and son were active participants in a team workout that included plenty of laughs to go with preparation.

“They really make it fun,” Gray said of her coaches. “They know how to keep our heads in the game, but they also know how to get us to a point where we feel like we can just have fun in practice and also prepare at the same time.”

Family runs through the varsity roster as well. Eighth-grader Hope Gray is Taylor’s sister and seventh-grader Leila Vargas is Laurel’s sister.

“I’ve known a lot of her friends over the years, so I’ve really been trying to help them find their place on the team,” Taylor Gray said of her sister.

Steve Weber credits the team’s veterans for both accepting and helping the youngsters. He said he has been impressed by his players’ ability to adapt to new situations, their unselfishness and how much they care for each other.

While everything has come together at the right time, what remains to be seen is whether the Crusaders can complete the ultimate surprise season with a state championship.

“You get to a final four, obviously you want to go in with expectations of trying to do the best you can and play really well and see what happens,” Steve Weber said. “I think they’re real excited about the opportunity. We’ve got a couple of them who were there a couple of years ago and they’ve been talking about how much fun they had and different things that occurred. That’s been real good for the rest of the team.”

Taylor Gray sees no reason why the Crusaders can’t continue their ride together through Sunday.

“We just really have to work together, even more at this point,” she said. “We’ve gotten a lot better over the course of the season, but we’re really getting to our peak right now. As long as we work together, I think we have a good chance.”

SATURDAY’S SCHEDULE

GIRLS SOCCER

New York state Class C semifinal: Elmira Notre Dame (14-3-1) vs. Stillwater (19-2), 3 p.m. at Homer High School

FOOTBALL

New York state Class AA quarterfinal: Cicero-North Syracuse (10-0) vs. Elmira (6-4), 7 p.m. at Union-Endicott

CROSS COUNTRY

New York State Public High School Athletic Association championships, 9 a.m. at Wayne Central School

IF YOU GO

Tickets for the girls soccer are $8 per game; cross country is a $10 charge per car; and football is $10 per game. You can order tickets via www.nysphsaa.org/Resources/Championships.

Follow @SGAndrewLegare on Twitter

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