Soccer players are known for their foot skills. Precision passes, ankle-breaking moves, and rocketing shots typically garner the crowd’s cheers.
University of Notre Dame men’s soccer captain Patrick Berneski has established himself as a leader of the Irish on both attack and defense by a different route: using his head.
Five of Berneski’s six goals this season have resulted from headers, with the center back using his 6-3 frame to tower above the opposition and power set pieces past the goalkeeper.
The half-dozen goals slotted home by Berneski are enough to tie the defender with senior Thomas Ueland for most scores on the team. That season goal total also ranks Berneski as the only defender in the top 10 for scoring in the ACC.
“All my goals have been off set pieces,” Berneski said. “Most of it is service, we’ve had great balls in this year. The corner kicks and set pieces have just got it close enough, pretty much get it right to me. It’s pretty easy for me to just tap it in. They’re doing most of the work serving it. It’s also that mentality now it’s my last season, nothing lose, so I might as well go all out on every opportunity.”
With a regular-season finale victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday, Berneski led the country’s 23rd ranked team to a 9-5-2 record. The Irish begin their postseason title quest with a match against Clemson in the opening round of the ACC tournament. In their last meeting a season ago, Notre Dame beat the then fifth-ranked Tigers in a memorable 2-1 game.
“Last year was a really good game at their place,” Berneski said. “It should be a really good matchup. We’re definitely hoping to get the win and start off the ACC strong. Our regular-season strength of schedule really prepared us for this tournament. We played some of the best teams in the ACC and the country in general. There’s no team we played this year that we didn’t think we could beat. We’re coming into the tournament very confident.”
Unlike their most recent matchup on Clemson’s home turf in South Carolina, Notre Dame will have the privilege of hosting the first-round tournament match. Home field advantage is supposed to be a reward based on conference standings, but the Irish have performed better outside of Alumni Stadium this season. In eight away or neutral-site matches, Notre Dame suffered just one loss.
“It’s nice for the whole team when we get on the road. … We can just focus on the game for two days with no real distractions. You’re in a hotel doing the little things leading up to the game. The entire day leads up to it. You wake up, you don’t have to go to class. Just wake up, go to breakfast with the team, go stretch with the team, go over some film with the team and constantly prepare.”
For all its benefits, away games can also pose challenges to the team. The team’s traveling prowess has been anchored by the senior leadership, especially captain Berneski, working to limit distractions.
“It’s just constant reminders to stay focused. On the road, we have to use that to our advantage. Make sure everyone knows why we are on that road trip. It’s a business trip. We are not just traveling for fun. Every time we go on the road we are trying to come back with three points.”
Berneski is aided in his role of leading the team by new head coach Chad Riley. The successor to 17-year incumbent Bobby Clark, Riley was lured back to his alma mater from his previous job at Dartmouth to take the mantle from his former coach. Before leading the Big Green to four consecutive Ivy League Championships, Riley played midfield for Notre Dame in the early 2000s. His past playing history gives Riley a unique relationship to the current student-athletes.
“It’s been great. He’s very open to what our team thinks and our ideas,” Berneski said of Riley. “He’ll take everything we say into consideration. He’s very open-minded, which is always nice, but definitely a little bit different than last year. Our day-to-day activities are a little bit different. Same end goals; we want to be the best pressing team, best on set pieces, things like that are the same. The way we go about it is different. Him changing some things is really making us perform a little better; going about it in a different way, making sure everything stays fresh.”
A victorious result against Clemson would put Berneski and company three wins away from an ACC Championship, with the tournament final being held Nov. 11 in Cary, North Carolina. After conference play concludes, the Irish have their eye on the national stage and the NCAA College Cup held in Santa Barbara, California, on Dec. 9.
There is a lot of soccer left to be played and the Irish captain is undaunted by the challenges ahead.
“Winning everything would be nice,” Berneski said. “We came into the season knowing that we could win the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament. Our season up to this point kind of backs that up. We probably don’t have the record we’d ideally want right now, but how we play speaks louder than all of those numbers. We played [North Carolina] and [Indiana], two of the best teams in the country, extremely tight. We felt like should have walked away with better results in those. We know we can beat everyone. Our expectation is nothing less than winning.”
Losses to then-No. 2 Indiana (a 2-1 overtime decision on Sept. 11) and then-No. 3 North Carolina (a 1-0 loss in double-overtime on Sept. 21) are two games Berneski can point to as confirmation of his team’s potential. Still, two overtime losses on their home field separated by 10 days, with a third one-goal loss to then-No. 4 Michigan State in between, did not sit well with the Irish. Berneski recalls reviewing film after each loss and arriving at the same conclusion every time.
“‘We really could have won this game; we think we outplayed them,'” Berneski recalled. “It just didn’t fall our way those games. Those losses in particular, that was a three game stretch of all games we felt like we should have had a better result than two overtimes and one loss in the 89th minute. We just make sure the team stays together, no pointing fingers. Make sure everyone recognizes how good we can be and know that the only thing holding us back would be ourselves.”
Just a few games after that trying string of losses, the Irish found themselves in a familiar situation. It was a home game versus a top-10 ranked program, both teams locked in a draw going into the final minutes of regulation. Sixth-ranked Louisville would not be as lucky as the earlier challengers. The Irish were able to draw upon their late-game experiences and emerge with a win.
“That was one of those games again against one of the top teams where we battled them until the end of the game, went to overtime, and then outplayed them,” he said. “It ended pretty quickly in overtime. We kept going and learned from those earlier games, those Michigan States, UNCs, and finished it off. We kept up the pressure and got a PK in overtime to win it.”
In addition to his attention-grabbing goal-scoring numbers, Berneski has been a fixture in the center of a stingy Irish backline. The Notre Dame defense has recorded six shutouts this season, with all but two of their opponents held to two goals or fewer.
“We have a very veteran backline with a lot of people who have a lot of experience, but also this year we’ve been able to cycle some other players through who have all definitely been able to step in and really contribute,” Berneski said. “Now we’ve been able to rotate some guys through, get some guys some rest. Now, whatever happens we’ll have someone else ready to step in and take someone’s place.”
Increased playing time for the next generation of Notre Dame defenders will help the Irish prepare for the seasons to come. A fifth-year student, Berneski will play his final game for the University whenever the team’s postseason run comes to an end. The captain plans to tally up plenty of tournament victories before it is all over, but he already has fond memories from his time with the Irish.
“The thing I’ll miss most is the camaraderie, being with the team,” he said. “Talking to some people who’ve moved on to that next level, that’s something that you don’t really get at that point. There is kind of a cutthroat, competitive mentality compared to here where it’s team-first. Everyone’s working to accomplish the same thing. We’re not competing for salaries or anything along those lines. Everyone’s goal here is a national championship.”