Oct. 24, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Knowing exactly what it takes to become a national champion can be both a blessing and a curse. A champion understands the hard work that enabled them to reach the pinnacle of their sport, but the challenge is trying to replicate those steps to ensure continued success.
The University of Notre Dame men’s soccer team’s national title defense hasn’t been perfect, but the team currently resides in first place in the stout Atlantic Coast Conference heading into Saturday’s showdown with Virginia Tech at Alumni Stadium. Not only are the Irish the defending NCAA champion, they also have a second straight ACC regular-season crown in their sights with two league matches left to play.
Each season presents new obstacles and the Irish began to formally address those just weeks after winning the national title in December. The Fighting Irish used their spring practices and exhibition games to learn, improve and ultimately see what the 2014 roster would resemble. Challenging matches during a three-week summer trip to Zimbabwe also improved the squad and answered some questions.
While each season is different, one thing that can be constant is the team’s fitness level. The Irish players trained arduously over the summer in order to guarantee they would be in shape at the beginning of fall camp. When it reassembled on campus in mid-August, the squad put up unprecedented numbers in its fitness test (the beep test) and that was an indication the players weren’t going to rest on the accomplishments of last season.
“It’s a credit to them for putting the work in, both the guys that were away and those that were on campus with me (during the summer),” Matt Howley, who is in his third season as the team’s strength and conditioning coach, says. “It’s important because they can’t get fit in camp. It’s not like other sports where you have six or seven weeks when you can prepare them. You basically have to be prepared as if you’re ready to play on the first day. Our biggest focus is giving the coaches a product they can work with and do game-like stuff from day one.”
Whether in the hot and humid air of August, the frigid lung-burning air of December or anywhere in between, a player has to possess the fitness level and focus to deliver at any moment. A player’s stamina can directly affect how they are able to concentrate during crucial segments of a match.
A player who is familiar with delivering in key late-game situations is Fighting Irish senior captain Nick Besler. The central midfielder, who has logged every possible minute on the pitch this season, netted the overtime game winner in the 107th minute of the 1-0 victory over VCU earlier this season. His first career tally was a 90th-minute equalizer against Georgetown in the title game of the 2012 BIG EAST Tournament, a match the Irish won in overtime, 3-2.
“Playing 90 minutes isn’t too hard, but playing 90 minutes effectively is a little bit more of a challenge,” Besler says. “Knowing that I am a key cog in the center of the field for the whole game, I want to play 90 minutes up to my standards. I don’t want to play 75 minutes and be tired for the last 15 and maybe overtime as well. If I lost my standard a little bit I’d hurt the team.
“The two goals that I scored had a lot to do with the team effort of everybody being in shape and fit. A lot of times you can lose the mental focus when you get tired. I like to try and keep my mental focus as precise as possible through the whole game.”
Soccer can be called a cruel game because the team that plays the best doesn’t always win. While that can also be said of other sports, the limited amount of scoring in soccer leaves the door open for an underdog to deliver a crucial score that can suddenly erase the fact they’ve been outplayed. It only takes a single mental lapse to cost a team a positive result.
A way to limit the chance of a cruel fate is to be prepared for the full 90 minutes and, specifically, the latter portions of the contest. The Irish have made teams pay in the second half of play. Including Besler’s golden goal against VCU and Patrick Hodan’s in the Louisville match, Notre Dame has outscored its competition 15-7 in the second period and overtime this season. Last year, the Fighting Irish held a 24-11 scoring advantage in the second half and overtime en route to the national title.
“Being fit played a role (in winning the national championship) and Boss (head coach Bobby Clark) gives it a lot of credit and I thank him for that, but I think it was just our ability to repeat efforts,” Howley says. “We had the ability to pressure repeatedly last year and that goes back to the principles of the fitness test that we do and the training program we do. We want to be able to do high-intensity efforts, lots of them, at maximum speed as often as we can and be able to repeat those. If we can repeat them for 90 minutes you’re going to be able to shut the other team down.
“It’s about how much can we wear the other team down. That’s something that we do well. Last year we were able to play at a high level where we’d be able to put the other team in the red zone pretty quickly and we found there really was no one who could push us to the red zone. If you’re not playing in the red zone, you can obviously do what you want. You’re going to be composed and be able to connect passes and hopefully score goals.”
Clark expects a lot out of his players from a fitness standpoint. He only brings a few players off the bench each match, while the substitution patterns of other teams resemble line shifts in hockey.
“Matt (Howley) has been terrific,” Clark says. “We’ve always been a fit team and we had a very good program before, but this is Matt’s expertise and he’s possibly the first person I’ve ever given a license to really look at the program and add his stamp on it. The nice thing is that Matt has really taken to this. He’s really bought into it since he’s been given the responsibility. The players have also bought into it. It’s been a two-way street. Even though it’s very hard, they have enjoyed it because they’ve seen the results from it. I give a lot of credit of the fitness program to Matt.”
While preseason conditioning and game fitness garners a lot of attention, all of that hard work can be for not if a player doesn’t take care of his body properly. Recovery sessions the day after games and consulting with the team’s athletic trainer, Steve Smith, about any injuries go a long way in determining future success.
“The day after the games are really important because that day sets the tone for the next game,” Besler says. “If we don’t take our recovery serious then we’re already setting the tone off for the next game poorly. We typically go for a little bit of a walk and jog and then we do stretching with the rollers and bands to get our muscles loose again. Sometimes we’ll do a light lift to get range of motion back and keep our strength up.”
“It’s all recovery-focused in season,” Howley states. “With 17 or 18 games in not a big period of time, less than three months, we’re recovery focused and trying to maintain what we have. With such a stressful period of time, it’s all about recovery.”
Recovery from Wednesday’s 1-0 setback at Indiana is well underway and the Fighting Irish figure to be fit and focused as they host the Hokies on Saturday and try to get one step closer to another ACC title.
— Sean Carroll, Assistant Athletic Media Relations Director