Aug. 27, 2014

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The challenge of defending a national title is one that every team in the country would gladly accept and this year that task belongs to the University of Notre Dame.

For the first time in the 38-year history of the program the Fighting Irish will wear the label `reigning national champion’. Unfortunately, the title and ensuing expectations don’t come with a manual.

“The big thing about this season is that it’s new for everybody,” Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clark says. “We’ve been the defending champion of our conference, but we’ve never been the defending national champion. That’s a great challenge to have and I think we’re all looking forward to it. We’ve seen how some other teams have won the championship and then the year after has not been as good.”

The Fighting Irish are aiming to become the first NCAA Division I men’s soccer program in a decade to repeat as champion. A good place to start with that pursuit would be to keep doing what they’ve done over the past two years, going 34-5-7, including a 17-1-6 mark last season.

“It’s an exciting group and we’ll have to find out who will become the go-to guys and who will become the leaders,” Clark states. “That’s why you play the games and it’s about taking one game at a time. That’s what we did well last year. We have a sign up in our locker room and it shows our upcoming game and that’s really good because all the focus is on that one game so you’re not looking ahead. That’s going to be very important this year.”

Not only are the Irish the reigning NCAA champion, they also are looking to claim another Atlantic Coast Conference crown. Notre Dame captured a share of the ACC regular-season title last year during its first go-around in the challenging league.

Notre Dame begins the 2014 campaign ranked No. 1 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) poll and the Irish were picked to win the ACC by the league’s head coaches. Those weren’t courtesy nods for ending last season as the best team in the land. The Fighting Irish welcome back nine starters and 72 percent of their goal production from 2013.

Junior midfielder Patrick Hodan is the leading returning scorer after totaling 11 goals and five assists last season. Those numbers only trailed first-team All-American Harrison Shipp, a current rookie standout with the Chicago Fire, for team-high honors. Joining Hodan as a starting wide midfielder will be his classmate Evan Panken, who deposited five goals last season. All-ACC first-teamer Nick Besler, a senior, will occupy one of the central midfield spots and he will be paired with senior Robby Gallegos or junior Connor Klekota.

Forwards Vince Cicciarelli and Leon Brown combined for 11 goals and six assists last season and they bring a veteran presence to the Irish attack, which welcomes talented rookies Jeffrey Farina and Jon Gallagher. No one person can fill the absence of Shipp so the Fighting Irish will rely on an abundance of players who can find the back of the net. A prime example of that came in the team’s final preseason match when the Irish used five different goal scorers in the 5-1 victory over Wisconsin.

Three quarters of the Fighting Irish backline has returned. Fullbacks Max Lachowecki and Luke Mishu along with central defender Andrew O’Malley all are entering their third year as starters. Lachowecki produced three goals and two assists last season and O’Malley headed home the winner in the national-title-game victory over Maryland. Sophomores Brandon Aubrey and Matt Habrowski will be vying for the central defender spot that Grant Van De Casteele occupied for the last four seasons before becoming a first-round pick of the Colorado Rapids.

Playing behind that accomplished and experienced defense will be fifth-year senior Patrick Wall. After splitting time as a starter in 2012, Wall played every minute last season and collected 10 shutouts along with a 0.71 goals-against average and a .804 save percentage.

“This is possibly the most players that we’ve ever brought back,” Clark, who is entering his 14th season at Notre Dame, says. “It’s always good when you have experience within the group. We only lost two starters (Shipp and Van De Casteele), but they were two very good players. At this time last year, everybody was talking about what do you do when you’ve lost Ryan Finley and Dillon Powers. They were two tremendous players.

“If we are going to be a consistent and challenging program, which we’ve done in recent years, others are going to have to step up. This is the challenge for the guys coming back. Who is going to step up and play? A lot of our success revolves around being a team. Good teams do have special individual players and we were lucky because Harry (Shipp) and Grant (Van De Casteele) were consummate team players. You hope that your top players will be top team players. I think we’re in good shape with that.”

An illustration of just how committed the Fighting Irish are for another run at the title is the fact they have four fifth-year seniors on the roster. Brown, Mishu, O’Malley and Wall all could have left on top of the college soccer world, but they opted for one more campaign in South Bend with the hope of doing it again. That quartet played a vital role in last season’s success and, specifically, in the championship match. Brown netted the equalizer against the Terrapins in the 40th minute off an assist from Mishu (and Besler) and O’Malley’s game winner came 20 minutes later. Wall made two saves to earn his 17th victory of the season.

“It would have been easy for them (the fifth-year seniors) to say their last game was winning a national championship,” Clark states. “I love the fact that all these guys wanted to come back and play again and compete again. It would have been easy to take the easy road and sit in the sun for the rest of their soccer lives and they could have done it that way. By doing it this way, they’ve challenged themselves and I think that’s exciting.”

Mishu, O’Malley and Besler will captain the team as it navigates the unchartered waters for the program. Luckily they enjoyed a taste of that leadership duty during the team’s summer trip to Zimbabwe.

“These three captains have a different flavor,” Clark says. “They all have strong personalities, which is important when you’re a captain. They had a three-week run at it in Zimbabwe along with the week leading up to the trip. There are always some little hiccups and I thought they handled everything really well. I think they’re ready for the job and they are excited to be captains.”

Not only did the Africa excursion allow the captains to figure out their roles as leaders, it provided the entire team with additional time to find their chemistry on and off the field. The Irish practiced, played, toured and took part in service work for Grassroot Soccer. Continuing the togetherness of the team will be critical this season since the squad now has a large target on its back.

“They know this isn’t going to be an easy year, but no year with our schedule has been an easy year,” Clark says. “You have the (defending champion) label this year, but one of the great things about Notre Dame is that nearly every year a lot of the other teams will circle us on their schedule because it’s a special game for them. Notre Dame being what it is, will always be a big game for the other team. You’re always going to get your opponent’s `A’ game. Just being Notre Dame, that’s something that’s going to prepare us pretty well … we’re very excited about the upcoming year.”

Additional comments from Bobby Clark:

On the goalkeepers…
Patrick Wall has been a starter for the last two seasons and he’s the favorite. Both Brian Talcott and Chris Hubbard had a terrific spring and also played very well in Zimbabwe. We shared all the games there among the three (returning) goalkeepers and they all did very well. We’re pretty strong there and then Max Hallwachs comes in. He was able to come in and work camps and be around our players a little bit. Just watching him go through the drills with the camp goalkeepers, he looks very solid. I think we’re in good shape with the goalkeepers.”

On the central defense…
“Losing Grant (Van De Casteele) is a big loss, but hopefully Andrew O’Malley stays fit. He missed the six games in Zimbabwe and the two players that mainly played there were Brandon Aubrey and Matt Habrowski. Mark Mishu also saw a good bit of time. Both Aubrey and Habrowski did very, very well. From what we saw in the spring we’d say it would be those two competing for that spot, but Mark Mishu did well. He’ll be sniffing around. Then we have the freshman Patrick Berneski coming in. He’s a little bit like Mark Mishu because he can play in any spot along the back. We like him a lot. We’re in good shape in the middle of the back, but it’s going to be a little bit different.”

On the fullbacks…
Luke Mishu and Max Lachowecki are the starting guys. Michael Shipp is an exceptionally strong player coming back. He did very well at the start of last season when Luke Mishu was suspended for the UCLA game. He’s now in a position where you feel very comfortable with him. Trevor Gonzales is so steady and he’s such a terrific guy. He’s a very consistent player that can play both left and right back so he gives added cover.”

On the central midfield…
Nick Besler, Connor Klekota and Robby Gallegos all saw a lot of time last year and did very well. Ollie Harris did well in the spring and he did very well in Zimbabwe so that gives us four players. Pat Connolly is a little bulldog and he was one of the more improved players last year as a freshman. He worked very hard and is a very steady player. Blake Townes is a freshman who can play in the wide areas as well as the middle. He’s a well-rounded player who can fill a lot of different roles. I say he’s a central midfielder because that’s where he played with his club team. That is where a lot of good players end up playing with their club team. I’m excited to see him play because he was one of the top players from this region.”

On the wide midfield…
Patrick Hodan and Evan Panken are the two starting wide midfield players from last year and they were fantastic. Brendan Lesch was injured and missed all of last year. That was his second ACL injury so it’ll be interesting to see how he performs. Brendan got back a little bit in the spring, but I don’t think he ever got back to full fitness. Danny Lojek also did well last season. We have experience with Brendan and Danny along with Panken and Hodan. We also have Andrew Cupero. He worked hard in the spring and he’ll come forward a little bit. Kyle Dedrick is a very exciting incoming player from Connecticut. He has a good first step and goes by players. It’s always a lot to ask freshmen and put too much pressure on them, but he’s going to have a big career at Notre Dame. He’s a very good player.”

On the forwards…
“We lost Harry Shipp, but we have Vince Cicciarelli and Leon Brown coming back. We also have Mark Gormley, who we’ve played up top and as a wide midfield player. The two incoming freshmen are pretty exciting. Jeffrey Farina is a very, very good player. He holds the ball up possibly better than any young player I’ve seen in the country. He’s terrific at holding the ball up and bringing other players in. Jon Gallagher has a nose for goals a little bit like (former Notre Dame All-American) Joe Lapira. He’s not very big, but he’s quick and has a knack of knowing where the goal is. He also makes good decisions. These two freshmen are very exciting.”

On the Zimbabwe trip…
“It was good in so many ways. It gave us six games and every game was a challenge. Even the game we won 5-0, we got our goals that day, but it still was a good game and they were a pretty good team. Goals just kind of fell for us that day. Every game was tight and the team had to work and play hard. They had to play against very skilled players, who were men in many cases. They had to deal with that. I thought we got to look at a lot of players and people like Ollie Harris had to come through. (Brandon) Aubrey and (Matt) Habrowski really got time on the field. They were playing against good players. They had to work some things out and learn on their feet. I thought that was good. The established players also got good time. It let us look at the two young goalkeepers (Brian Talcott and Chris Hubbard). The whole spring let us get a good look at Talcott and Hubbard. It’s important that it’s not just Pat Wall. You need players who can back him up because if you get an injury there you have to have someone who can step in and then someone who can back up.”

— Sean Carroll, Assistant Athletic Media Relations Director