NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Ninth-year Notre Dame men's soccer coach Mike Berticelli looks forward to the 1998 season with great anticipation.
It's not just the fact that the Irish return seven starters from last year's squad which posted a 10-9-2 record overall during the 1997 campaign and made a strong late-season finish to earn its second straight appearance in the BIG EAST tournament semifinals. What has Berticelli most excited about this year's team is the tremendous focus and team chemistry that exists.
"Unquestionably, the strength of this year's team is the chemistry the players have with each other," Berticelli says. "You could really see it during spring workouts. This team has the best chemistry and character of any squad I have coached since coming to Notre Dame. They get along extremely well and work well together. They work hard for each other."
That feeling of teamwork has created a purpose for this year's team. Undoubtedly, one of the components for success will be the unselfish attitude of the entire squad. While this team may not have the overall talent in all areas of the field that some of the past Irish squads have had, it certainly will not be a group of players short on character.
"This team has tremendous character to overcome adversity," Berticelli says. "The unselfish attitude that was displayed by each player this spring is something that is going to carry us early on in the season. We have a group of players this year with a strong work ethic who believe that they can win games."
Leadership begins with senior co-captains Matt Johnson and Phil Murphy. Both have played key roles in Notre Dame's success over the past two seasons, and their leadership which will be an important factor for the Irish early on.
Johnson has started all but one game for the Irish during his three-year career spanning 63 games, while Murphy, a former walk-on, has worked his way into the starting lineup. Both have earned the respect from their teammates for their unselfish work ethic.
"You couldn't ask for two better captains than Matt and Phil," Berticelli says. "They're two great models both on and off the field. Their leadership, as well as the leadership of all of our upperclassmen, will be an important factor for us at the start of the season."
While the '97 season was somewhat of a rebuilding year for Berticelli and his staff, the Irish mentor saw significant improvement from his young ballclub during the course of the campaign and in the spring in terms of its team defense and its possession of play in the midfield.
With the loss of the team's top two scorers, Ryan Turner (12 goals, five assists) and Bill Savarino (four goals, six assists), the biggest obstable Berticelli's squad may need to overcome will be in knowing who is going to score the goals. It was evident in the spring that despite its strong defensive play, there were many times that the Irish had problems putting the ball in the net.
Berticelli's biggest challenge will be finding a "go-to" person and a player who will rise to the occasion. He most likely will look to a number of proven scorers instead of just one or two players.
"We've had the luxury the past couple of year of having a couple of primary goal scorers," Berticelli says. "I don't think this year we can rely just on one or two players to score goals for us. It's really going to have to be spread out because of the way we play and scoring balance all around will be very important." Berticelli will look to a number of seasoned veterans -- seniors Ben Bocklage and Scott Wells, juniors Andrew Aris and Ryan Cox -- and freshman Shane Walton to help out with the scoring. Junior Matt McNew, who will move from the sweeper position he has played the past two seasons into the midfield this season, could also become a bigger scoring threat for the Irish.
While Notre Dame adjusts and settles into an offensive gameplan, the Irish will rely heavily on its defense, especially early on in the campaign.
"Defense is going to be extremely important to us," Berticelli says. "Our biggest objective will be to play well defensively in every game, although we know that we can't rely on defense to win every game for us. You can shut out a team, but ultimately, we've got to be able to score and create scoring opportunities and chances."
The focus of the preseason for this Notre Dame squad will be in solidfying its defense as well as learning how to become a dangerous goal-scoring team.
The loss of leading scorer Ryan Turner has left Notre Dame with a scoring void up front. This season, a blend of experience and youth make up this year's forward unit.
Heading the list of returnees at forward is fifth-year senior senior Scott Wells who played in all 21 games a year ago and made 18 starts. He returned to the Irish fold in '97 after playing in just three games during his junior year following a concussion and netted two goals while dishing off a team-leading eight assists.
Berticelli will be looking for this fifth-year senior to step up his play and to get more involved offensively this season. Wells has the ability to score goals for the Irish.
"We're going to count heavily on Scott's leadership and maturity this season," Berticelli says. "He did a great job for us last year setting up other players and creating scoring opportunities for others on the field. What we would like to see him do this season is take more scoring responsibility."
Junior Andrew Aris gives Notre Dame big goal scoring potential on the forward line; he looking to become one of the team's "go-to" players. During the past two years, he has scored some big goals for the Irish in games, but what he has lacked is the ability to put the ball in the net consistently. Aris started nine of the 21 games he played a year ago, netted three goals and dished off four assists.
"Andrew definitely needs to be one of our top goal scorers this season," Berticelli says. "He is terrific at beating players one-on-one and getting through the box. He's an extremely competitive player and has a good work rate. What I would like to see Andrew do is finish his shots with more consistency."
Junior Ryan Cox's return to the lineup gives the Irish great diversity and scoring potential up front. An all-BIG EAST Rookie selection in 1996, he was slowed by injuries last season and only played in the first two games of the '97 campaign. In his rookie season, he started nine of the 19 games he saw action in and had a goal and four assists.
Cox is a dangerous scoring threat, but has been held back because of injuries during his career.
"Ryan is an explosive player who brings excitement to our lineup," Berticelli says. "He's an extremely difficult player to defend and certainly is very talented. Ryan's progress as a player has been hindered by the fact that he's never been 100 percent. If he can stay healthy, Ryan has the ability to be one of the top forwards in the country."
Freshman Shane Walton is another player who brings immediate excitment and explosiveness to the Irish lineup. He will be a major impact player for Notre Dame in his rookie season. Walton is an extremely athletic player with good size and quickness.
A versatile athlete, he excelled in both soccer and football at The Bishop's School. During his four-year career, he scored 45 goals and dished off 25 assists during his career and was rated one the top players in Southern California.
"Shane will have an immediate impact for us this season and is a truly gifted all-around athlete," Berticelli says. "He certainly is one of the quickest players on our team. He will be very exciting to watch when he is on the field; he is athletic, quick and good in the air."
Junior Peter Bandera will contribute either in the midfield or at forward. He played in only two games last season after seeing action in six games as a freshman.
Last season, the Irish had to replace three seasoned veterans in the midfield. This year, the midifeld unit is a strength of the Notre Dame attack. It's an experienced and talented group of returnees with the ability to produce a lot of goals.
The glue that holds the midfield together is three-year starter Matt Johnson. The two-time Irish captain has maintained the integrity of the Notre Dame attack and defense over the past three years. Johnson controls the tempo of the game in this area of the field, and his steadiness and consistency bring stability to the lineup. In the 63 games he has played in during his career, he has missed just one start.
Not known to be a scorer, Johnson had a goal and dished off four assists in his junior season. He is one of the team's best defensive players, but could help the Irish out offensively in '98.
"Matt is an exemplary leader both on and off the field," Berticelli says. "During the past four years, he has contributed in all areas and is someone we can count on every game. Matt is the heart and soul of our defense in the midfield and displays great composure with or without the ball."
Senior Ben Bocklage will be a key scoring threat for Notre Dame in the midfield and is a proven big-goal scorer. During his Irish career, he has played both on the forward line and in the midfield. Bocklage, who played in 21 games a year ago and made eight starts, was extremely effective for the Irish at the end of the '97 campaign and finished the season with five goals. He will be the one to initiate the attack for the Irish from the midfield.
"Ben is an aggressive and explosive player," Berticelli says. "He needs to take responsiblity on the field for scoring goals as well as utilizing the confidence and maturity he has gained from his playing experience. I look for him to start this season the way he finished up a year ago."
The move of junior Matt McNew from sweeper into the midfield could prove to be a real bonus for the Irish in terms of improving both its offensive and defensive game. McNew, a natural midfield player in high school, was forced to play sweeper the past two seasons because Notre Dame lacked solid defenders in the backfield.
Berticelli looks for McNew to become more active offensively, but also hopes to count on his defensive experience. McNew showed last season that he can be a scorer as he netted two goals and dished off two assists.
"We're looking for Matt to provide some firepower to our attack," Berticelli says. "He will help us with ball possession in the midfield as well as become a scoring weapon. He has a very powerful shot and can score from a lot of different places on the field."
Sophomore Reggie McKnight is coming off a strong rookie outing with the Irish. The only freshman to play in all 21 games in '97 and a starter in 11 of those contests, McKnight will once again be vying for a starting spot in the Notre Dame lineup. The fourth-leading scorer a year ago, he netted four goals and dished off three assists.
McKnight showed last season that he is capable goal scorer, Berticelli expects him to be more productive offensively in '98.
"Reggie is a very gifted and athletic player," Berticelli says. He has a great enthusiasm for the game and a strong work ethic. Reggie gained valuable playing experience a year ago and we look for him this season to become more of an active goal scorer."
Look for junior Jason Jorski to see more playing time this season in the midfield after seeing action in just six games a year ago. He has tremendous speed and an explosive shot. He is most dangerous running at defenders with the ball.
Sophomore Dan Storino also will look to see more playing time in the midfield and gives the Irish depth in the midfield.
Freshman Matt Rosso is an extremely solid midfield player who will also be vying for playing time. A proven scorer, he scored 27 goals in his final scholastic campaign and dished off 11 assists. Berticelli will look to find him time in the lineup.
The Notre Dame defense will be the backbone of the Irish squad, especially early on while the offense finds its identity up front. Berticelli will rely on his defensive corps to maintain the team's composure in the opening games of the season.
Senior co-captain Phil Murphy, a former walk-on, is one of the steadying forces in the Notre Dame backfield. He is the consummate team leader with a tremendous work ethic. Each and every season, he has improved his overall game and last season started all 20 games he played. Murphy has a keen understanding of the Notre Dame defensive gameplan and grasps the tactics extremely well. What makes him most effective is that he plays within his limits and is a smart, consistent player; he keeps the ball in play and does a good job of playing the ball off of his foot.
"Phil will be our leader in the backfield," Berticelli says. "Like Matt Johnson, he is an exemplary role model both on and off the field. Phil is a key player for us because he is so consistent; he knows what is expected of him and he just goes out and gets it done."
Fifth-year senior David Cutler was a 16-game starter for the Irish last season. He returned to the lineup a year ago after missing the entire 1997 campaign while studying abroad in Italy. Berticelli may play him at the sweeper position, but regardless of where he places him in the lineup, Cutler is going to have to continue to be an aggressive and tough defender.
"David is one of our most consistent and hard-working players," Berticelli says. "He's extremely dependable, has great timing with the ball and can play anywhere on the field. From time-to-time, he may see action in the midfield. What impressed me most about him a year ago is that he stepped right in after missing the '96 season and really didn't seem to miss a beat."
Sophomore Stephen Maio struggled with injuries a year ago, played in only 13 games and made three starts. Heralded as one of the top defenders in Canada, he looks to regain the form he had in high school and will challenge for a starting position at marking back. Maio comes from an outstanding background; he's a mature and aggressive player with the potential to have a real impact.
"Stephen has great speed and intensity and a tremendous work rate," Berticelli says. "He's a very strong, technical player whose aggressive style of play really benefits our type of defensive strategy."
Matt De Dominicis has been a utility player in the Irish backfield the last two years, but at the end of his sophomore season started a couple of games and was playing with a great deal of confidence and consistency. De Dominicis also may see time in the midfield, but Berticelli will look to take advantage of his speed and work rate on defense.
"I look for Matt to really have a big year for us," Berticelli says. "He has worked extremely hard over the past two seasons improving all facets of his game."
No player showed more improvement during the course of the '97 campaign than Connor LaRose. A steady and consistent player, he will be a factor for the Irish in his second season and will see time as a marking back or in the midfield. LaRose played in 13 contests and earned starts in the final four games of the season. He is one of the most intense and hard-working players on the Irish squad. He demonstrated his intensity a year ago and seemed to raise the team's level of play when he was in the game.
"Connor made the jump to the collegiate level much faster than we expected," Berticelli says. "He may play as a marking back or center midfielder this season. He'll fill a lot of roles for us and will be an important ingredient to our success."
Sophomore Griffin Howard could move to sweeperback. He played that spot during the spring and adjusted well to his new role. Howard played in just five games as a freshman, but will see considerably more playing time in his second season.
"Griffin is a good all-around player," Berticelli says. "He is clean with the ball, is a good passer and is very strong in the air. If Griffin continues to make the improvements in his game that he showed at the end of last season and during the spring, his play could be a real boost for us in the backfield."
Sophomore Dustin Pridmore is another player who will see time both in the backfield and midfield. After seeing playing time in just five games last season, he will look to see more playing time this season and to be a more consistent player when he is on the field. Berticelli is looking for him to contribute this season after he showed flashes of brillance in his rookie outing.
Freshman Evan Oliver was expected to see playing time this season, but knee surgery this summer is likely to force him to miss the entire '98 campaign. Another freshman, Tim Storino, gives the Irish depth in the backfield.
The goaltending duties once again will be left in the hands of three-year starter Greg Velho. The Irish senior is primed for his best season ever and heads into the '98 campaign as one of the top goaltenders in the nation.
Over the past two years, Velho has played nearly every minute of every contest. Last year, he was the only goalkeeper the Irish used. In 21 games, he allowed 27 goals, registered a 1.23 goals against average and made a career-best 94 saves during the season while posting a .777 save percentage. He also recorded eight shutouts in '97, giving him 21 for his career.
"Greg has matured a great deal during his three seasons," Berticelli says. "We're counting on his experience and consistency early on. He's a good decision maker and very confident. Greg gives us a good start in the back."
Senior Gerick Short has played sparingly his first three seasons and last season did not see action in any contest. Berticelli will look to get him more playing time this year.
Junior John Krivacic also will serve as a backup to Velho and
Short. He has not seen any action in his first two seasons at