Sept. 3, 2015
The streamers fluttered and the confetti flew about 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia.
The University of Notre Dame had just won the 2013 NCAA men’s soccer national championship, and anyone anywhere associated with the Irish program was celebrating.
Beth Hunter, one of Notre Dame’s associate athletics directors and the men’s soccer administrator, recalls the moment well.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion. The players rushed out onto the field and all this fanfare was happening.
“After a few moments went by I found Bobby (Clark, the Irish head coach) and gave him a hug. He simply responded with, ‘Yes, it’s very nice, very nice.’
“He had already moved on. That chapter had closed, and he was already thinking about the spring season and how to train his next team to do it again.”
The Irish are no strangers to the NCAA Championships, qualifying in every year but one once Clark took over in South Bend in 2001. Yet, without question, Notre Dame stepped up its game beginning in 2012, and the resulting three-season run has placed Clark’s program at the elite level of men’s college soccer.
Here’s what the Irish have achieved over three seasons:
— 2012-Notre Dame claimed the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Championship bracket by virtue of a 16-3-1 regular season that culminated in a BIG EAST Conference Championship title.
— 2013-The Irish earned a No. 3 NCAA seed, then they worked their way through the bracket with wins over Wisconsin, Wake Forest, Michigan State and New Mexico before defeating Maryland 2-1 to secure the NCAA title. Notre Dame finished 17-1-6 and captured the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship in its first season in the league.
— 2014-Notre Dame again earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA bracket. The Irish ended 12-5-4 and won the ACC Coastal Division crown.
In college athletics these days, a program earns its stripes based on the consistency of its on-field production. So, Clark’s unit effectively has put itself into the same neighborhood as a handful of other Notre Dame sports teams that have achieved ongoing success:
— Women’s Basketball ÃƒÆ’Â¢ÃƒÂ¢’Â¬” Five consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances, four of those in the title game, plus a championship banner in 2001 and another Final Four berth in 1997.
— Women’s Soccer-NCAA titles in 1995, 2004 and 2010; national runner-up slots in five other seasons; NCAA appearances every year since 1993; No. 1 rankings heading into NCAA play in 1994, 2000, 2006 and 2008.
— Men’s Lacrosse-NCAA Championship Weekend appearances two straight years and four of the last six seasons; championship game appearances in 2010 and 2013.
— Fencing-NCAA titles in 1977, 1978, 1986 (all men’s), 1987 (women’s), 1994, 2003, 2005 and 2011 (the last four combined men’s and women’s titles)
Clark typically doesn’t spend much time reflecting on the run, though he allows the memories are pleasant ones:
“Obviously the last three years have been good, and both times we were the No. 1 seed we lost to No. 16 seeds that went on and won the title (the Irish fell to Indiana in OT in 2012 and Virginia in 2014). It shows you how competitive the ACC is ÃƒÆ’Â¢ÃƒÂ¢’Â¬” Virginia was the eighth seed in the ACC tournament last year and yet they went on and won it all. It’s so competitive top to bottom and every game is a battle.”
The Irish head coach points to a bevy of factors, beyond talent and coaching, that have helped Notre Dame prosper. Clark and his staff began using a Prozone video system that provided self-scouting analytics. Notre Dame director of sport science Matt Howley helped the Irish tweak their offseason conditioning program a few years back, and Howley has championed the use of GPS devices, heart-rate monitors and other programs to track well-being.
Says Clark, “We were always right on the cusp of getting there. I think the program competing in the old BIG EAST was really a challenge. It was one of the best soccer conferences in the country and we won that conference several times. To win a league is a hallmark of the best teams, so that’s been nice that we’ve done that. You get on a run and you go.
“I don’t think we’ve changed very much. And yet, no question, winning a national championship gives the seal of approval to your program. And we’ve had a toughness the last few years, a nice competitive edge.”
Clark understands as well as anyone the ever-so-slim margin between winning and losing. He recalls teams at both Stanford and Notre Dame that ranked among the best he coached but didn’t reach their goals.
“We had a nice run at Stanford at the end, including the two years after I left when they went to the national semifinals and then the finals. But my last year (2000) we lost in the quarterfinals to SMU and that was by far the best team (18-3-1)-we scored 68 goals and lost 10.
“Arguably our best team at Notre Dame was the one that didn’t make the NCAAs in 2011 (the Irish were 9-5-4, losing to Villanova in the BIG EAST playoffs first round). We had Dillon Powers and Ryan Finley and Harry Shipp and we didn’t even make the tournament.”
Adds Hunter, “You have a coaching staff that is very consistent and has a vision and doesn’t waver from that vision or plan no matter how things are going. They have confidence in themselves and confidence in their players. The team dynamic has been really strong the last few years. I hear over and over from players that the team chemistry and togetherness is better than they’ve ever known it to be.
“They train hard, they work hard and Bobby’s all business. They have a lot of fun together. They genuinely like each other. They build each other up and call each other out. He was born to be a coach, he’s born to shape lives.”
To ensure his current squad appreciates its standing, Clark read to them an email that recently came to him from Shipp, now playing with the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer.
“It was for the seniors and it said that with the exception of Max Lachowecki (a fifth-year player) none of them know what it’s like to miss out on the NCAAs, so remind them never to take that for granted.
“You can’t win it if you don’t get there and it’s not easy. You don’t get games back, you’ve got to be ready to play.”
Clark’s track record over a long number of years suggests that’s seldom an issue.
— by John Heisler, Senior Associate Athletics Director