Aug. 9, 2005
A difference between good teams and great teams is the ability to reload as opposed to rebuild after the loss of key components. The challenge for the 2005 Notre Dame men’s soccer team will be to reload yet again after losing valuable members of its BIG EAST regular-season championship squad from one year ago. This task is nothing new to head coach Bobby Clark and his staff and they fully embrace the situation at hand and look to keep the Fighting Irish among the nation’s best again in 2005.
Notre Dame graduated a solid five-man class that featured All-American goalkeeper Chris Sawyer along with two all-BIG EAST and MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalists in defenders Kevin Goldthwaite and Jack Stewart. Also departing were midfielder Luke Boughen, who tallied eight points as a senior, and defender Christopher High. Those five student-athletes were a major reason why the Irish led the nation with a 0.45 goals-against-average in 2004 and their absence may leave some doubting this year’s squad as they embark on the 2005 campaign. Clark sees the questions as a chance for excitement and has adopted the motto of `Staying Golden’ for this season.
“There’s always excitement when there are a few question marks,” says Clark, who is entering his fifth season at the helm of the Irish program. “We had the best defense in the country but we lost a lot of those guys. If we have a good team then we are going to graduate good players. It’ll be a wee test for us but it’s obviously something that gets you excited. There should be a lot of players excited to see if they can step up and fill these roles.”
Losing the nucleus of an amazing defensive unit will pose a challenge as Notre Dame enters the 2005 campaign. However, that may be overshadowed by the fact that the Irish return a strong offense, including 63 of its 84 points from a season ago. The situation was quite different last year as the team only returned three of their 38 goals from the 2003 season, yet the squad would go on to capture a conference championship and a top-five national ranking. Setting the tone for the Irish were Clark and his assistants Mike Avery and Brian Wiese. The trio steered the team to the program’s first eight-win BIG EAST campaign and were named the conference’s coaching staffing of the year.
“There are questions with our defense this year, but the rest of the team is really solid because we are returning many players from the midfield, so it should be a very strong midfield and strong forward line,” states Clark. “The previous year it was the opposite because of the returning forwards no one had scored a goal, so it was a season of firsts for a lot of guys. It took a little while to find our confidence to score goals last year.”
The newly gained confidence in scoring ability should go a long way in solidifying a strong Irish offense in 2005. On paper, the strength of the Irish will be their offensive attack as they return six of the top seven leading scorers from a year ago. Justin McGeeney, a junior, returns after posting team-high totals in points with 12 on five goals and two assists. Those marks helped him to cop third-team all-BIG EAST accolades. Tying McGeeney for the team lead in goals was Tony Megna. The duo will team up again, and Clark envisions big things from the forward combination.
“Tony Megna is now a senior and he is such a hardworking fellow,” comments Clark. “His confidence has grown and I wouldn’t be surprised if Tony had a breakout year. And McGeeney is looking as fit as I have ever seen him and he is a smart and good player. He was so close to getting a lot more goals than he actually had last year and I feel he’s going to find ways to get those goals this year.”
Joe Lapira will bring instant energy to the Irish offense again in 2005 just as he did last season as a freshman. The sophomore is a spark for the Notre Dame attack as he can take defenders on and usually makes something good happen as he did a year ago with three goals and two assists. Freshman Bright Dike brings a different dimension to the Fighting Irish forwards with his strength and speed. His presence should be felt on the field during his rookie campaign as the Irish attackers hope to ease the burden of the defense by putting the ball in the back of the net.
“Goals are never easy to come by in soccer but I think this class should be exciting because we have some very good attacking players,” says Clark. “The question marks will be in defense but we are also confident that we’ll have some people that can step up and really make things happen.”
The defense will look toward a group of players that have seen time on the field and have also learned from some of the best players in the country over the past few years. That experience, coupled with the exposure of learning from great athletes and coaches, is one of the landmarks for an elite program and how teams are able to produce consistent winning seasons.
“It’s a challenge,” states Clark. “One of the nice things is that the guys who are trying to fill some of these spots were guys that watched last year’s defense.”
Filling the shoes of Sawyer at the goalkeeping position will be no easy task. Senior Justin Michaud and junior Chris Cahill return to try and fill the void. Their experience at Notre Dame has been limited due to Sawyer’s presence. Michaud has appeared in four career matches, with three of them coming last season, while Cahill has yet to see time during his Irish career.
“The goalkeeping spot is an interesting one as we have two returning goalkeepers (Cahill and Michaud) who both did well in the spring,” says Clark. “We also have two young guys (Andrew Quinn and Luke Seibolt) coming in who both have talent. The preseason scrimmages will be very important for that position and we hope to come up with someone who can fill the bill.”
Senior captain Dale Rellas is returning from two injury-plagued seasons, but if he can stay on the field he will provide the Irish with much needed experience in the backline. He was arguably the team’s top one-on-one defender as a freshman. Junior Ryan Miller will look to fit the right back position. He did well last season after missing his freshman campaign to injury. In the left back spot, senior Ben Crouse hopes to duplicate the success he had there last season as he filled in for an injured Goldthwaite during the first half of the season. Adding depth at the leftback spot will be freshman Jack Traynor, a player who Clark believes has a very bright future at Notre Dame.
Sophomores John Mousinho and Andrew Benton will also look to make an impact on this year’s defense after both playing well in the spring. Mousinho filled in on the Irish attack at times last season, yet moved to the middle of the back during the spring and that is where his time will likely come this year. Freshmen Cory Rellas, Dale’s younger brother, and Kyle Dagan will add depth to the defense as they will compete to find time on the field.
“I think we’ll get plenty of quality players to play in the back,” comments Clark. “The only thing that might be missing is that we don’t have a lot of experience because we had three very strong people there a year ago. We have good returning players and we also have some very good freshmen.”
Junior Greg Dalby, a second-team all-BIG EAST selection last year, will once again secure the Irish midfield. Dalby will serve as a tri-captain for this season’s squad, which should be familiar to him as he captained the U.S. Under-20 team through a successful run at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championships. The run featured an undefeated record in group play, including a 1-0 victory over eventual-champion Argentina.
“Our midfield looks pretty good,” says Clark. “We should be anchored again by Greg Dalby, who has had two excellent seasons here at Notre Dame. He also had a great spring and early summer season with the Under-20 national team.”
Senior tri-captain John Stephens will team-up with Dalby and sophomore Kurt Martin to create a formidable and experienced midfield. Juniors Nate Norman and Ian Etherington along with sophomore Alex Yoshinaga and senior Jon Mark Thompson should patrol the wide areas. All four of those student-athletes saw plenty of action last season, while Norman and Etherington bring added experience to the pitch as they were both U.S. Under-18 players. Etherington was the second leading scorer for the Irish in 2004 with a team-high five assists to go along with three goals, which helped him earn third-team all-BIG EAST honors. As a freshman last season, Yoshinaga was a big contributor, making 13 starts and tallying eight points on three goals and two assists. Clark will be looking for an even bigger impact this season from his young and creative midfielder.
Providing depth in the midfield will be sophomore Kyle Dulworth, who did not see much time last season yet Clark hopes with added confidence will be a contributor in 2005. Talented freshman Matt Besler is a versatile player who can play anywhere in the midfield and will make a strong push for time as a rookie.
The youth of the Irish will have to grow up quickly as a difficult schedule awaits Notre Dame yet again. Out of the gate Notre Dame will battle two Sweet 16 teams from one season ago. A contest against SMU and a match-up versus Wake Forest will be part of a marquee event at the adidas/IU Credit Union Classic in Bloomington, Ind. The team will then travel home to play host to the Mike Berticelli Memorial Tournament with Boston University and Saint Louis taking to the pitch against the Irish.
“We have a great schedule and I make no apologies for that,” states Clark, whose team faces eight 2004 NCAA tournament teams. “You want to test yourself and this year we certainly test ourselves very early. We will play some of the best teams in the country in our first five or six games. That is great and it will let us know where we are.”
As always, the BIG EAST ledger will put the Irish through a series of challenges. Notre Dame opens the conference slate with a trip to St. John’s. These two teams battled to a 1-1 tie last season at St. John’s and the Irish will be looking for their first-ever victory on the home turf of the Red Storm. The Connecticut Huskies, who are the defending BIG EAST Tournament champions, will invade Alumni Field in early October and the Irish will also welcome in Seton Hall later on that month. The Pirates eliminated Notre Dame from last year’s BIG EAST Championship on penalty kicks, 8-7.
“You tell me if there’s a better league in the country than the BIG EAST,” comments Clark. “We are the defending champions so everyone will be out to get us. But that is great and that is how you want it. If you are a good team you want to play with that pressure on you. The nice thing about a tough schedule like we have is, when you get to the (NCAA) tournament, you are not scared of anyone.”
Notre Dame will also play host to new BIG EAST foes Louisville and Cincinnati during the year and will hit the road to take on Marquette, another conference newcomer. The BIG EAST portion of the schedule features 11 matches, while Notre Dame plays seven games out of the conference along with two exhibition games against New Mexico and Michigan – both NCAA tournament teams in 2004.
Non-conference showdowns with Big Ten opponents Indiana, the two-time defending national champion, and Michigan State do not give the Irish much room to breathe but should only make them tougher come postseason play. Playing beyond the regular-season has become a norm for the Fighting Irish since Clark and his staff arrived.
Over the past four seasons, the Notre Dame men’s soccer team has taken huge steps towards national prominence as the Fighting Irish have made program history in many ways. Questions have been asked of the Irish over the past few campaigns, whether it has involved them living up to expectations or reloading following significant losses to graduation.
Filling in holes and facing expectations are not exclusive to Notre Dame, yet how teams deal with those situations are a measuring stick for a program.
“Every team has question marks heading into the season and we just need to find the right answers,” says Clark.
The Irish have answered many of those questions in the past by capturing a BIG EAST tournament title in 2003, a regular-season crown in 2004, and a top-five national ranking each of the past three seasons. With a pleasant mix of experience, youth and confidence in the fold for 2005, more of the same will be expected as the Irish look to `Stay Golden.’