She's A Kick With the brilliant (yet sometimes absentminded) Vanessa Pruzinsky, Notre Dame shoots for a title

November 17, 2003

Last Spring Vanessa Pruzinsky became the first chemical
engineering major in 29 years, and first female ever, to graduate
from Notre Dame with a 4.0 grade-point average. She has spent the
last two summers working at a chemical plant and then a chemical
engineering lab, and is capable of explaining reverse osmosis as
easily as if she were giving directions to heat frozen pizza.

Pruzinsky, 21, is also a very good soccer player. A two-time
Academic All-America, the fifth-year redshirt senior defender is
the anchor on a Fighting Irish squad that is 19-2-1 and was fifth
in the nation with a paltry 0.49 goals-against average. Next week
third-ranked Notre Dame heads to the NCAA tournament in hopes of
winning its first women's soccer title since 1995.

There's little question that Pruzinsky is brilliant and
athletically gifted, but it's also reassuring to know that off
the field and out of the classroom she can be as absent-minded as
the rest of us. "For someone so smart you'd never know it
sometimes by talking to her," says coach Randy Waldrum. "She can
be a little ding-y."

Her teammates love to tell stories about her, like how, despite
having lived on the South Bend campus for five years, she relies
on printouts of Yahoo! Maps to help her get everywhere, including
the grocery. And how one time in practice she asked if she was
offside--even though she was on defense. And how her locker is in
such disarray that she often can't find her training gear, so the
team gave her two more lockers to help her get organized. Says
senior midfielder Kim Carpenter, one of Pruzinsky's roommates,
"When she does something goofy in practice, Coach will say,
'Vanessa, you have to tell us what bridges you're going to build
so that we can remember not to go on them.'"

How does Pruzinsky react to the needling? "Oh, it doesn't bother
me," she says. That's because Pruzinsky often isn't listening to
them; her usual position on the bus for road trips is headphones
on, textbook open. Pruzinsky, who is taking graduate classes in
biochemistry, says she often studies more than seven hours a day,
many nights closing the library at 1:45 a.m. Since her freshman
year, she's relied on the same CD of acoustic guitar music--a
disc called An Evening with Windham Hill Live--to provide ambient
noise. "If the music had words," she says, "I'd get distracted."

By the third grade Pruzinsky was dominating classroom math
competitions and playing travel soccer. That year she also
dressed up as Pele for a school project. Not long after, her
father, Ken, took up coaching. He read manuals, attended coaching
clinics and was soon running her youth teams. He even made goals
out of pipes and netting for the backyard. "We had three
regular-sized goals and one small one," says Pruzinsky. "It was
great for me, though I'm not sure how much Mom appreciated them."

All that practice paid off. As a forward at Trumbull (Conn.) High
for four years, Pruzinsky scored 79 goals and led the team to
three state titles. Her senior year she won national player of
the year honors and was highly recruited. Pruzinsky chose Notre
Dame because she felt the players were "academically minded." Her
freshman season, she was converted to defender by Waldrum, who
already had a corps of talented attackers.

Now Pruzinsky leads a team that has a shot at the national title,
something that would be a fitting coda to an exceptional career.
"I really want to win it all this year," says Pruzinsky, not
sounding the least bit absentminded. "This is my last chance."

COLOR PHOTO: JOE RAYMOND HEADY PLAY Pruzinsky, who graduated with a 4.0 in engineering, anchors the Irish defense, which is among the nation's best. COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 (INSET) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY A. CAMARATI (O'REILLY) O'Reilly

Fightin' the Irish

In addition to Notre Dame, here are the five teams with the best
shot at reaching the NCAA championship game.


North Carolina (21-0-0)
Heather O'Reilly and the Tar Heels were perfect in the regular
season and are the team to beat.

UCLA (16-1-3)
Since giving up five goals in their only loss, the Bruins
have allowed just eight scores in their final 13 games.

Portland (16-3-1)
Fourteen of the defending champions' 16 wins were shutouts, 10 by
goalie Cori Alexander.

Penn State (16-3-2)
Midfielder Joanna Lohman, the Big Ten player of the year, has
seven game-winning goals in 2003.

Santa Clara (12-3-5)
The Broncos beat Portland 2-1 on Nov. 2 to avenge their defeat in
the 2002 championship game.