The 1996 campaign proved to be a season of redemption for the Notre Dame men’s soccer team.
The disappointment and frustration of a 9-10 record and a less than auspicious 4-7 mark in its first season as a member of the BIG EAST Conference still lingered in 1995 for the 17 returnees on last year’s team. The ’95 season had begun with much anticipation and enthusiasm, but key injuries early on seemed to dampen the spirits of a young Irish squad.
Determination and team unity characterized this ’96 squad. It was a team with considerable experience that was led by a group of five seniors who were fueled by a desire to win and prove the critics wrong.
“We had great leadership from our seniors last year,” head coach Mike Berticelli said. “At the start of the season there was still a lot of disappointment from the previous year. The frustration and letdown they experienced stayed in their hearts and that was good. It made the difference in the type of year we had.”
In just their second year in the BIG EAST, the Irish won the BIG EAST tournament championship after finishing third in the final regular season standings. Notre Dame posted a 14-7-2 overall record, the second most victories in Berticelli’s seven-year tenure, and was 6-3-2 in BIG EAST play.
In winning the school’s first-ever BIG EAST crown, the seniors on the Irish roster — Tony Capasso, Brian Engesser, Peter Gansler, Konstantin Koloskov and Chris Mathis — had the distinction of winning three conference championships (two as member of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference) and playing in three NCAA tournaments.
The ’96 NCAA trip came in rather dramatic fashion as Notre Dame played in 10 straight one-goal decisions in the final 10 contests of the season. During that span, which included the postseason, the Irish posted a 5-5 record and were 3-1 against ranked opponents in the final four games of the season.
Notre Dame entered the NCAAs with an 0-3 record in previous tournament action, but came away in ’96 with its first-ever NCAA tournament victory as the Irish shut out second-ranked and second-seeded UNC Greensboro, 1-0 on the Spartans home field. The contest marked a homecoming for Berticelli who had coached for four years at the school and led UNCG to back-to-back Division III national titles in 1983 and 1984.
Junior forward Ryan Turner, who missed all of the ’95 season with a back injury, tallied the game-winning goal for the Irish against the Spartans. Turner scored the game’s lone goal at the 54:23 mark of the contest when he collected a loose ball from just inside the UNCG penalty area and sent a sliding chip shot over Spartan goalie Brad Shumate.
“It wasn’t one of the prettiest goals,” Turner said following the game, “but with my size, I was able to stay on the ball and run through the tackle.”
The win no doubt proved to be the biggest in the history of the Irish men’s soccer program and established a new standard for future Notre Dame teams. It certainly gave the seniors a moment to cherish.
“This was tremendous for the program,” said Capasso, one of three Irish captains and the leading scorer on the team, after the win. “As a senior, it feels good to set a new standard, to leave a new legacy for the next wave. Anything after this for us in the tournament is gravy.”
Despite losing to eventual NCAA semifinalist UNC Charlotte 1-0 the following weekend in a contest that was decided in the final 24 seconds of regulation, this was a Notre Dame team that displayed heart and character all season long.
The success of the ’96 season certainly gives the Irish something to build on as this squad put new meaning into the definition of perseverance. After losing its best defensive player, Engesser, to a career-ending injury eight games into the season, this Notre Dame maintained its poise and composure.
Berticelli’s squad, which had won just two road games in the previous seasons, had a 7-6 record in ’96 away from Alumni Field in ’96 where they once again proved dominant in posting a 7-1-2 mark at home.
Losing four of their final five contests put the Irish into a predicament of having to win the BIG EAST tournament in order to earn a berth into the NCAA tournament field. Notre Dame responded to the challenge by winning three games en route to the title, including victories over two ranked opponents.
It all started with a 2-1 victory over Georgetown in the quarterfinals of the BIG EAST tournament. In the regular season, Notre Dame pulled out a 2-1 overtime decision over the Hoyas on the road. The quarterfinal meeting between the two schools, which was played in a snowstorm at Notre Dame, was decided in the final five minutes of the contest. Georgetown went up 1-0 in the contest midway through the first half before the Irish tied the game on a Mathis goal with under a minute to play before intermission. Koloskov scored the game-winning goal at the 84:56 mark.
The win set up a semifinal meeting with 14th-ranked Connecticut, the tournament’s second seed. Despite being outshot 24-9 in the game, the Irish scored two goals midway through the first half and hung on for a 2-1 victory. Notre Dame’s two scores came within a six-minute span. Freshman Andrew Aris put the Irish on the scoreboard first with a goal at the 25:56 mark from just outside the penalty box. Ben Bocklage nailed in the second goal at 31:15 when he drilled a shot from 30 yards out off a direct kick.
Sophomore goalkeeper Greg Velho, who earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, came up with a strong performance in registering a career-high 10 saves in the game.
Notre Dame met 12th-ranked Rutgers in the title game after the Scarlet Knights upset top-seeded and eventual national champion St. John’s. Adversity met the Irish again as they would have to play without two of their top players — Turner and Gansler. Turner was ejected in the first half following a red card, while Gansler was removed following his second yellow card in the second half.
The Irish, however, beat the host Scarlet Knights on their own field, 1-0, avenging an earlier 1-0 setback suffered in Piscataway, N.J. during the regular season.
Koloskov, for the second time in three outings, provided the game-winning tally at the 39:45 mark when he took an Aris cross and netted the ball into the left corner of the net past Rutgers goalie Jonathan Conway.
The shutout was the ninth of the season for the Irish who outshot Rutgers 10-3 in the contest. The win typified the Notre Dame approach to games all season — strong defense. It was earned despite missing one of the steadiest Irish defensive players — Gansler.
Velho earned his eighth shutout of the year and made three saves against the Scarlet Knights which gave him 13 for the two days of the tournament.
The sophomore seemed to save his best performances for the final four contests of the season. He came up with his most impressive showing of his career in Notre Dame’s second round loss to the 49ers of UNCC as he registered a personal-best 12 saves in the game. In the final four games of the season, he made 30 saves (7.5 per game) and allowed just two goals.
Capasso, the heart and soul of the team, was named the squad’s MVP, was a first-team all-BIG EAST selection and Great Lakes honoree. Capasso became only the second player to earn All-America accolades when he was a third-team selection to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA)/Umbro All-America squad.
Koloskov garnered third-team Great Lakes regional honors, while freshmen Alan Woods and Ryan Cox were named to the BIG EAST All-Rookie team.
The Irish finished 17th in the final Soccer America rankings and 20th in the NSCAA/Umbro Poll.
The ’96 season perhaps has already set the tone for the ’97 campaign as returning members hope that trips to the NCAA tournament become an annual event.
But no one can take away the memories of ’96 as the Irish earned themselves the title BIG EAST Champions.