Aug 16, 2013
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Garnering a high preseason ranking is much like scoring a goal with the offsides flag up - neither count in the end. But as the early-season polls continue to trickle out a couple things are very clear - the University of Notre Dame men's soccer team appears very high on most lists as do several Fighting Irish opponents.
Notre Dame debuts at No. 7 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) poll, 11th in the College Soccer News rankings and sixth according to BennettRank. Eight Irish opponents appear in the NSCAA poll, including four in the top 10 alone. That figure doesn't include their first exhibition foe Creighton, which is No. 6. The Irish and Blue Jays will square off Sunday in Omaha, Neb., in what should be an outstanding early-season test for both squads.
Fighting Irish head coach Bobby Clark feels preseason rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt and rightfully so. A year ago, Notre Dame was nowhere to be found in the NSCAA preseason poll, yet went on to post its most victories since 1988, win the BIG EAST Championship and earn the top seed for the NCAA Championship.
However, seeing your team's name high in the polls along with several of your opponents may give the players a little extra "juice" during the dog days of preseason training.
"The teams we play are some of the toughest in the country and we need to go out and prove how good we are every day," senior forward Leon Brown said. "We want to improve on last year and get farther than we did (in the NCAA tournament). We just have to keep that edge knowing that every team wants to beat us and we have to want to beat every team just as bad."
Having such a difficult schedule is nothing new for Notre Dame. Clark, who is entering his 13th season at the helm of the Irish program, routinely lines up a daunting slate for his squad. Last season, Notre Dame finished with the nation's No. 1 RPI after compiling a 17-4-1 record against some of the best teams in America.
"Facing tough teams in the preseason will prepare us for what we're going to see in the regular season," Clark said. "Some people say you can play an easy team in the preseason but I often feel an easy team can give you a false sense of security. Since every team on our schedule is very good, we have to warm up against teams that are good and then we have to see where we are."
Notre Dame's annual journeys through the BIG EAST never were walks in the park, but the program's move to the Atlantic Coast Conference places the Fighting Irish in arguably the nation's best league. Fellow ACC members Maryland, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke occupy the top four spots, respectively, of the BennettRank preseason rankings. Irish opponents UCLA (5) and Indiana (8) also appear in the top 10.
A snapshot of just how difficult the Irish schedule appears on paper can be found in early October. Notre Dame will play host to defending national champion Indiana, who is ranked No. 1 in the NSCAA and College Soccer News polls, and Maryland, a national semifinalist last season and current No. 2 according to the NSCAA, less than a week apart. Sandwiched in between those matches is a trip to Clemson.
"The ACC is one of the toughest conference in the country," Clark said. "The BIG EAST also was a very difficult conference and hopefully that prepared us for the ACC. I know the coaching staff is very excited and I know the players are tremendously excited about playing in the ACC. Last year the RPI had us with the second-hardest schedule in the country. I would be really surprised if there's a harder schedule in 2013 than the one that we have."
Clark's squad certainly will be battle-tested throughout the season in preparation for the only "ranking" that truly matters - the NCAA Championship bracket.
-- Sean Carroll