Nov. 10, 2014
When Bobby Clark, the University of Notre Dame men’s soccer coach, read a text he received at 1:30 a.m. Sunday, he knew then his defending national champion Fighting Irish would be just fine later in the day against Virginia, a team the Irish had never defeated.
Irish forward Leon Brown, who had been in Jamaica to attend his grandmother’s funeral, sent a message to Clark that read, “Where are we eating (breakfast)? Pancakes at Bette’s, or pre-game in the locker room?”
“Bette’s” meant pancakes prepared by Clark’s wife, Bette, at the Clark home, a tradition the Irish savor.
“I texted back, ‘Pancakes at Bette’s,'” Clark said with a smile, knowing the text meant Brown would be in uniform later on Sunday for No. 1 seed Notre Dame’s Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinal match against No. 8 seed Virginia.
Pancakes at Bette’s weren’t the only treat for the Irish, who feasted on Virginia for a 3-0 victory in their ACC Tournament opener. It was the first time the Irish defeated the six-time national champion Cavaliers, who owned a 4-0-2 edge over the Irish entering Sunday’s match. The Cavaliers handed Notre Dame its only loss last season and Virginia also got past the Irish on penalty kicks in the ACC Tournament.
Next up for the Irish is a semifinal match against No. 4 seed Clemson at 5:30 p.m. Friday in Cary, N.C.
On Sunday, the Irish overpowered Virginia, stinging the Cavaliers with their worst loss since a 4-1 setback against Wake Forest in the 2012 season.
Brown showed up for pancakes and then showed up for the Irish in a big way. Playing less than 12 hours after his flight from Jamaica landed in Chicago, Brown shook off three days of not training and struck early for the Irish. He ran down a crossing pass from Evan Panken and rifled a shot in a goal from 16 yards out, giving the Irish a 1-0 lead in the 28th minute.
“It was definitely tough,” Brown said of playing shortly after his grandmother’s funeral. “I wanted to change my mindset away from the funeral mindset and get re-focused on the game. I thought I was able to do that pretty well. We’ve been working hard all year. We didn’t want to let this slip.
“I watched some game film when I was away. I was trying to keep up. It was definitely tough, getting a couple of practices lost. I came out today and had to work hard.”
Panken said the Irish knew Brown would be at full force Sunday despite his absence from practice and dealing with a tough travel schedule that left him with only a few hours to sleep after driving from Chicago to Notre Dame.
“Leon wasn’t even training with us this week, but everyone had confidence in him,” Panken said. “He knows the system, and he’s a great player. He makes it easier for everyone else. He makes smart runs and he’s a deadly finisher. When he gets his chance, we all know he’s going to put it away.”
Brown displayed his talent for delivering in big games with the goal against Virginia, his third in the past two games. The 5-foot-11, 160-pound graduate student scored the tying goal in last season’s national championship game against Maryland, a 2-1 victory for the Irish. This season, he has a career-high six goals.
“Tournament time definitely brings out the best in everyone,” Brown said. “You want to play your best every game. As a forward, scoring goals is definitely the way to show that on the field. I’m just trying to come out and score goals as much as I can.
“I try to be as clinical as I can in front of the goal. Last week in practice we worked a lot on taking your chances in front of goal. It’s coming out and focusing during the game, not to get too excited in front of the goal, but being calm and composed.”
Brown was able to jump-start the Irish in their postseason drive thanks to an exceptional effort by Panken to outrace a Virginia defender and make a twisting cross.
“Evan’s a worker bee,” Clark said. “He just doesn’t stop. They put these GPS things that track (yardage) on the players, and he blows everybody else away. He runs miles. The distance he covers during a game is phenomenal. He’s all over the place.”
Patrick Hodan contributed a goal and an assist, and Brandon Aubrey also scored for the Irish. Irish goalie Patrick Wall continued his solid season, making eight saves, including several sensational diving stops.
Clark was pleased to see the Irish post their first victory against the heralded Virginia program.
“It was a good performance,” Clark said. “I thought Pat Wall handled the ball superbly throughout the whole game, taking crosses, taking through balls … he was terrific. Our young forward, Jeffrey Farina, was phenomenal, holding balls up, bringing other players into the play. The whole team worked phenomenally hard. The effort that was there to keep the game alive for us was terrific. I’m very happy.
“They’re a tough, tough group,” Clark said of the Irish. “They all know what they’re doing. They all know how to play. They play well for one another. That’s been a hallmark of this group of players, not just this year, but last year and the year before. They all play hard for one another. They play well as a team. They are good individually, but the biggest thing they do well is they play together.”
Panken said getting off to a powerful start in the postseason gives the Irish a surge of momentum heading into the ACC semifinals. The fact the start came against nemesis Virginia made the showing even sweeter.
“We played Virginia twice last year, and we didn’t get the results we wanted,” Panken said. “So this year, we just needed a team win, and I think we got that today. This was important. We feel they kind of had our number a little bit last year. We didn’t play our best. We let them back into the game. I think this is just good for our team, as a whole. Three-zero is a resounding win, and especially getting a shutout is good for our defense.”
Brown said the milestone victory against Virginia and the dominating performance to start the postseason were very important to the Irish.
“We felt this was our time to go out and completely dominate them, which we were able to do,” Brown said of beating the Cavaliers. “This win sets a tone for the rest of our season, hopefully through December. I think this win is going to definitely propel us to go forward and keep the foot on the pedal.
“Everyone on this team is hungry to get more,” Brown said of the Irish taking aim at a second consecutive national title. “Coming into this season, our mindset was that we weren’t going to dwell on last season. We saw what happened to (defending national champion) Indiana last year. They ended up out of the tournament pretty early. We looked at that and used that. We don’t want that to happen to us. The work in the off-season, the work in the season, the guys have been full throttle.”
— Curt Rallo, special correspondent