Oct. 2, 2014
There are 974 miles that separate Plano, Texas from the University of Notre Dame campus, but that distance has not stopped the Fighting Irish men’s soccer team from establishing an impressive pipeline to that Lone Star State city and the latest to carry the torch is sophomore Brandon Aubrey.
Continuing that legacy, which has seen a Plano native on Notre Dame’s roster every season since 2000, isn’t the only thing Aubrey has been tasked with during his early college career. He currently is in his first season as a starter on a team that returned nine of them from last season’s national title run.
Aubrey came to Notre Dame as a top-20 midfield recruit nationally and he played valuable minutes last season as a forward. Now Aubrey is helping anchor the Irish defense as a center back. The transition has been made easier thanks to the veterans that surround him.
“It helps me a lot coming into a veteran team,” Aubrey says. “It takes the pressure off me. I know if I make a few mistakes, they’re going to be there to correct them and tell me how to keep working.”
Aubrey stepped into the starter role after the graduation of Grant Van De Casteele, a fellow Plano product. Van De Casteele started every game over the last four seasons and earned All-America honors last year. Dillon Powers is another Plano native who copped All-America accolades at Notre Dame before becoming the 2013 MLS Rookie of the Year with the Colorado Rapids.
Those two former Fighting Irish standouts provided a roadmap for Aubrey to carve out a distinct path at Notre Dame.
“I went to the same high school as Dillon (Powers) and I had heard a lot about him,” Aubrey says. “My coaches always talked about Dillon and that gave me a striving point to look up to and do what those coaches said Dillon did and used him as a model for how to get into Notre Dame. Grant (Van De Casteele) coming here also proved to me good students were highly valued at Notre Dame and if I kept up my academics I could get in.”
When Aubrey first arrived on the Notre Dame campus, Van De Casteele was one of the players who took him under his wing and taught him the intricacies of the college game. Now that duty falls partially on his central defense partner Andrew O’Malley, a team tri-captain a three-year starter in the Irish backline.
“Brandon has done very well this season,” Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clark says. “He has settled in well and he has received a lot of help from Andrew O’Malley and (goalkeeper) Pat Wall. He’s had experience around him to help.”
Last season, Aubrey appeared in 14 games, including one start, and he was the only Fighting Irish freshman to see action in multiple matches. He was able to provide the Irish with valuable depth, which was key during the memorable journey to the national title.
“It was a bit overwhelming coming into that mentality and atmosphere (of last season’s team),” Aubrey states. “Every game we went into we believed we were going to win, and that was a big change from my club team where we’d just hope we could win. That was the biggest change for me.”
With Van De Casteele’s departure, Clark had to consider his options for the vacant spot in the backline. Even though he played in the attack as a rookie, Aubrey was in the mix since he spent time as a central defender during his club career.
“I kind of expected it because I think I’m better at defense,” Aubrey says. “I knew Grant was leaving and Nick Besler and Connor Klekota would still be here (in the central midfield), so I felt it coming. I played it (central defense) a lot at the club level, and [Clark] told me he’d find me a spot to play even if it was center back.”
Aubrey and his classmate Matt Habrowski battled for the final central defender spot during the preseason and Clark had a tough choice to make.
“It was a hard decision for us at the start of the season whether we’d go with Brandon or Matt Habrowski,” Clark says. “Both did very well during the spring and during the trip to Africa in the summer. They are excellent players and Brandon got the nod. He had a little bit more experience. We played him more as a forward last year, but we always knew his position would probably be as a central defender. He played everywhere for his club team, but primarily as a center back. If they needed a goal, he was a forward. If they needed to not lose a goal, he was a defender.”
That goal-scoring prowess came in handy during Notre Dame’s 2014 Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Syracuse. The Irish were pitted against an Orange squad that had not allowed a goal all season and Aubrey ended that streak when he headed home the game’s only tally in the 75th minute. It was the first goal of his collegiate career and still the only score allowed by Syracuse so far this season.
“It’s always a big confidence boost to score a goal,” Aubrey states. “For me, it made me feel like I am finally producing for the team. Being a forward last year and not scoring was kind of rough. Getting that first goal out of the way really helped me feel like I am contributing to the team.”
While scoring goals is nice, Aubrey’s primary responsibility this year is to not allow the opposition to find the back of the net. He and the rest of the top-ranked Fighting Irish have been excelling in that department as well. Notre Dame will bring a season-best scoreless streak of 242:12 into Friday’s ACC battle with Boston College. Fifth-year senior goalkeeper Patrick Wall and the Irish defense are responsible for four clean sheets this season.
“I think Brandon has done great so far,” Wall says. “He’s scored a goal off of a set piece, which was big when we needed it. He’s been a great force stepping in for Grant (Van De Casteele) from last year. (Andrew) O’Malley and I have sat him down and have worked on stuff that he needs to do and he’s done really well.”
Whether it’s in the frontline or backline, it should be no surprise that a Plano product is having success at Notre Dame.
— Rich Hidy (’16)