Aug. 18, 2003
There is no question that excitement surrounds the Notre Dame men's soccer program in 2003. Third-year head coach Bobby Clark welcomes back nine starters from a top-20 team in 2002 and adds one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.
The Irish look to maintain the momentum generated by last season's appearance in the second round of the NCAA tournament. But as Clark cautions, that enthusiasm must be tempered.
"As a coach, I try to be careful," Clark says.
"Players put a lot of pressure on themselves. We still have to be careful and focus on one game at a time. Right up until the final kick, we were very competitve a year ago. At the end of the day, this is what I judge as a successful season. If you are doing that, you cannot ask for more."
Under Clark's guidance, Notre Dame has enjoyed great success during the past two seasons with back-to-back 12-win campaigns. One of the most respected coaches in the game, Clark knows his team was extremely close a year ago to making a major breakthrough before being eliminated by Indiana, 1-0, in the second round of the NCAA tournament on the Hoosiers' home field.
"We felt that we were very close to bringing something tangible back to South Bend," Clark says.
"I like to use the old quote 'You've got to learn to be the bridesmaid before you can be the bride.' We have hopefully learned the lessons that we need to take it to the next level. It does not happen overnight, but there has been what I call 'quality improvement' each year."
Notre Dame loses its top scorer from 2002 - Erich Braun - to graduation, but returns senior midfielder Chad Riley (20 points) and forward Justin Detter (19 points) along with captain Greg Martin (13 points).
With the return of such a talented and experienced group of players, is it possible that Notre Dame will enter the season with a target on their backs?
"I think the big thing is that we worry about ourselves," Clark says.
"This is one of our philosophies. We don't talk about winning games; we don't talk about the opposition very much. We talk about what we are going to do on the field. Come August we will be excited, but so will the other 200 teams in the country. I want to enter the final weeks of the season with that same focus and excitement. If we can do that, coupled with the discipline necessary, this team could be very good."
After two seasons, Clark's players appear comfortable with his system and style of coaching. He too has become more comfortable with the style he has implemented and how his team has embraced that system. Back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances under Clark are a testament to the program's success.
With nine starters returning, Notre Dame is primed for another solid season in '03. Clark and his staff, assistant coaches Mike Avery and Brian Wiese, are also looking forward to mixing in a highly touted freshmen class. Chris Cahill, Greg Dalby, Ian Etherington, Nate Norman, Ryan Miller, Brian Murphy and Justin McGeeney will provide the coaching staff with even more lineup options and continue to raise the competition level in practice.
"There is tremendous room for improvement in the freshman class," Clark says.
"You have some people that will step up right away and some that we will develop first. We are excited about all of them."
Seniors Justin Detter and Devon Prescod will be the leaders of a talented, but somewhat unproven core of attackers for the Irish in '03. Detter posted 19 points from the midfield last year (six goals, seven assists) while Prescod scored three goals and two assists. Both players will look to increase those numbers this fall.
"Devon is unbelievably talented," Clark says. "I don't know if I have ever seen anyone handle the ball under pressure as well as Devon. He is a good goal scorer and is calm in the box. Sometimes he is too calm and opts to pass it off. I would like him to get a little bit greedier."
Detter, a second-team all-BIG EAST selection in '02, will play up front for the Irish this season after moving from the midfield during the spring. He has proven to be an effective striker, possessing all the skills necessary to excel at that position. Clark is looking for Detter to take his game to another level during the upcoming campaign.
"Justin can be a real goal scorer," Clark explains. "He is an offensive threat and can do everything. He is two-footed, good in the air and a good passer. He is somebody that has the talent to become one of the best players in the country." Sophomore Tony Megna should also be in the mix to compete for playing time at forward after struggling with a back injury last fall.
"Tony came back in the spring and played very well," Clark says.
"He seemed to have fully recovered and got his fitness back. We are hoping that we will make an impact and contribute as a forward."
Prescod, Detter and Megna also will be tasked to pass on what they have learned in Clark's system on to five freshmen that might see action at forward this year. While no rookie can truly be judged until they step on the field, the '03 freshman class at Notre Dame has the ability to make a quick impact.
"Ian Etherington was on the under-18 national team with Greg (Dalby) and Nate (Norman)," Clark says. "He is going to be a character before he finishes his four years at Notre Dame. People all over the league will know Ian. He makes things happen and is not scared of anything. There is a little cheeky confidence about him that is terrific to have on the team.
"Nate Norman can play up front or in the middle, especially as a wide midfielder. He plays comfortably in either position. He just loves to take players on. He likes beating players. That is what every coach wants - you always need somebody that can beat somebody."
The '03 Irish squad will get a bit of local flavor with South Bend St. Joseph's graduate Brian Murphy. Murphy has ownership over much of St. Joseph's soccer record books and hopes to bring his scoring talent to bear on the Notre Dame roster this season.
"Brian holds all the records at St. Joseph's and there is nothing to stop him from getting some of the scoring records here at Notre Dame. He is big and has a presence on the field. I don't think we have a forward quite like him. It is always harder for a local boy to come in and play, but we really feel he has the ability and personality to handle the situation."
"Ryan is one of those underestimated players," Clark says. "Anybody that knows soccer in the Midwest knows the talent of Ryan Miller. He is a quick, two-footed athlete who passes the ball well and can also get forward and score some goals. He has the potential to make an impact as a freshman.
"Justin is another lefty just like (classmate) Brain Murphy. He is somebody that we got to know well at camp and we got to like him. We just felt that he was somebody that, in the right environment, could really develop into a first-class player. He is another player that can take the ball and go at players."
Bobby Clark's team is known to have some of the most aggressive midfield players in the nation. This season's group will be no exception and might prove to be the strength of the squad in '03. A wealth of experience returns in the middle for the Irish, as eight upperclassmen on the roster boast playing or training time at midfielder.
Senior Greg Martin, the first three-time captain in the program's history in 2003, and classmate Chad Riley will anchor the midfield. Riley nabbed third-team all-BIG EAST honors a year ago after finishing second on the team with 20 points (four goals, team-high 12 assists) and excels at setting up his teammates for scoring chances. He has led the team in assists all three of his seasons in the program.
"I am looking for this to be Chad's best year," Clark says. "He is a great person to have on your team. He loves soccer and demands great standards from his teammates. He is one of the best passers and crossers of the ball in collegiate soccer. He is 'Beckhamesque.' Chad has the ability to do for Notre Dame what (David) Beckham does in game."
Martin finished fourth on the team in points last season with 13 (six goals, one assist) and is a perfect example of 'leader on the field.'
"Greg loves being the leader," Clark says. "He is a guy who is always thinking. You cannot coach that. He is always in the game and always looking for a way to make things happen."
Martin has three-game winning goals in his career, including the lone score in Notre Dame's 1-0 victory over Loyola (Chicago) last season. In keeping with his play-making mentality, he also set up Rafael Garcia's first goal in Notre Dame's 3-2 victory over Akron in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Junior Jack Stewart shifted from the back to midfield during the spring and proved a quick study. Stewart started all 21 games last season in the backfield and has embraced his new position.
"Jack did so well when we moved him from the back to midfield," Clark says. "He is tremendous in the air and wins a lot of balls on the ground. The position switch was something we talked about and weren't sure about. After the spring, it is something that we feel much more comfortable with. He feels comfortable with it as well." Junior Luke Boughen appeared in all 21 games last season and scored three goals on 23 shots. He also is in the midfield playing time mix.
"Luke had a very good spring and grew as the season went on last year," Clark says. "He has looked very sharp and is someone that will be looking for time in the midfield."
Also contributing depth in the middle will be senior Filippo Chillemi, who saw limited playing time a year ago (six games) because of injuries.
"Filippo is possibly the most technically talented player on the team," Clark says. "He had a very tough year with his ankle and hip flexor. We are hoping that he becomes healthy and that his senior year is a special one."
"Jon (Mark Thompson) is good technically and a good athlete. After one year, he knows what college soccer is about and he know that he can play here. He has to step up to the plate and make some things happen.
"In many ways, John (Stephens) was similar to Jon Mark. He came off the bench last year and didn't measure up to his standards. He is a very driven player and in many ways similar to Greg Martin. He is always thinking and always into the game. I am hoping that he can find a role for himself in this year's squad."
Klauer should provide a spark in practice and an example for his teammates to follow in the tradition of "Rudy." He joins the team this season as a walk-on and gives Clark the flexibility to play him anywhere on the field.
"Roger has gotten better and better since coming out his sophomore and junior seasons," Clark says. "He can fill just about any role on the team except goalkeeper. Everybody loves him and it is very key that Roger stayed and will be able to join us for his senior year as a varsity player."
It is hard not to overuse the adjective 'aggressive' when talking about the Fighting Irish, but it is an apt description of the mindset for the two top returning defenders on the '03 squad. Senior Kevin Richards and junior Kevin Goldthwaite are equally adept at stopping the opposing teams attackers and shifting into table-setters and goal-scorers themselves.
Goldthwaite ended up tied for second on the team with seven assists last season, in addition to scoring a goal, while Richards also dished off three assists. Both started all 21 games for the Irish.
"Kevin (Richards) is fast, quick and determined," Clark says. "His ability to handle any opponent is very good. Also, his ability to get forward and attack is second to none. Kevin has become such a mature player. He has tightened all aspects of his game and his athleticism makes him a tremendous attacking fullback.
"Kevin Goldthwaite played as a defender for the first time last season and his ability to play that position improved all season long. There was never any question of his ability to attack and move forward. Kevin is one of the best attacking players on the team; he has a tremendous range of pass and is an exciting attacking flanker."
Sophomore Dale Rellas is the best one-on-one expert defender among Notre Dame's backline players. He appeared and started all 21 contests last season and is developing into a leader on defense.
"We are looking for Dale to take a bit more authority, which was hard for him to do as a freshman last season," Clark says "He may have played too quietly, but as a freshman that is understandable. We are hoping he can assume some leadership authority in the middle of the back."
Sophomores Ben Crouse and Nick Tarnay and junior Christopher High all stand ready to provide depth in the back for Clark. Crouse did not play as a freshman, but enjoyed a solid performance during the spring. High competed well during the team's Scotland trip last year and is looking to earn some significant playing time as well.
"Nick Tarnay did not play as a freshman but got a fair bit of time during the spring and began to show definite improvement," Clark says. "He will be looking to get some real game time this fall as one of the main defenders."
Highly-touted freshman Greg Dalby also has the ability to step in as an instant contributor for the Irish.
"Based on statistics and achievements, Greg is one of the best freshman to come to Notre Dame," Clark says. "He was captain of the Under-18 National Team, the Gatorade Player of the Year and the Parade Magazine Defender of the Year. He has a lot going for him coming in. He has a good feeling for the game and makes good decisions. When quality players get the ball, the game seems to slow down because of the ease with which they solve the problems of the game. They never seem to get caught in a hurry. Greg is a perfect example of that."
Notre Dame has the luxury of having one of the best goalkeepers in the nation in junior Chris Sawyer. Sawyer earned third-team all-BIG EAST honors a year ago after starting 16 of 21 games, making 49 saves and allowing just 16 goals (.754 save percentage). "Chris is a great person," Clark says.
"For someone with his ability, he is just such a humble person. He has a quiet confidence and a tremendous competitive spirit. There is a quiet calm about him and yet a tremendous confidence and an unbelievably competitive person behind that calm masquerade. The players have so much respect and confidence in him."
Sawyer has played in 31 games in two seasons on the Irish roster and has allowed 24 goals (0.78) and made 97 saves, while posting an overall record of 18-8-3. His secondary job, in addition to shutting down opposing offenses, is to mentor Notre Dame's two young goalkeepers, sophomore Justin Michaud and freshman Chris Cahill.
"Justin did very well as a freshman," Clark says. "He improved greatly throughout the season and shared time throughout the spring with Chris (Sawyer). He will probably still see himself in the back up role. The spring games have gotten him really excited about playing in a real varsity game. Justin is only going to get better and better and is a player we could ask to come back for a fifth year.
"Chris (Cahill) is a young man from camp the past two years with tremendous potential. He is big at 6-6 and is a tremendous athlete. He is just getting his feet wet." All three of Notre Dame's goalkeepers enjoy the benefit of personal instruction from assistant coach Brian Wiese. Clark gives much of the credit for his solid keeper play to his assistant.
"Brian has done a fabulous job working with all the goalkeepers," Clark says. "He just adds little bits here and there; he is always working on things." Even as Clark tries his best to keep the expectations and excitement of the program within its bounds, he also knows that his '03 squad has the capability of taking that next step to elite status in the nation.
"It would be great at the end of the season if we could have made history," Clark says.
"It would be great if we can do something no other Notre Dame team has done before. Whatever it would be would be terrific. All of the fun this season will be thinking that maybe we can do it, then putting in the effort of trying to do it. At the end of the day, that is what gives you satisfaction. I think pretty much last year we were in the top 25. It would be nice to take that a step further."