Aug. 18, 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a five-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2009 Notre Dame fall sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the two-time defending BIG EAST Blue Division champion Fighting Irish men's soccer team.
The 2009 Notre Dame men's soccer team is on a mission to take care of unfinished business from a season ago. The 2008 campaign was successful, yet the Fighting Irish saw their season come to an abrupt end with a 2-1 home setback to Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA Championship.
Notre Dame will bring a hunger, along with a very talented and experienced squad, into its new state-of-the-art Alumni Stadium in '09. The Fighting Irish hope to continue the success that has placed the program among the nation's best into their new home.
Head coach Bobby Clark is entering his ninth season on the Fighting Irish sidelines and has guided Notre Dame to unprecedented success. The Irish have qualified for the NCAA Tournament during all eight of his seasons, and they are coming off back-to-back BIG EAST regular-season titles for the first time in program history.
"It was great to get back-to-back league titles," states Clark, whose team posted a 12-7-2 record last season. "I thought last year's team was superb, but at the end of the day, to really make it and get lasting recognition, you need to do something in the national tournament. That's something that's in the back of the mind of all the teams playing."
The Irish welcome back eight starters from last season and they boast a tremendous amount of depth at nearly every position on the field. The entire goalkeeping, attacking and midfield units are returning. The Irish are bringing back 38 of its 41 goals scored last season. The defense has holes to fill, yet Clark looks forward to the challenge that will present.
"This is the deepest group that we've ever had," says Clark. "With that can come its own challenges because we have to make sure we use the depth well. That's going to be a challenge for (assistant coaches) BJ (Craig), Chad (Riley) and myself. It's a nice challenge to have and it's one that you really want."
Notre Dame not only has a tremendous amount of collegiate experience on its roster, the Irish also have three players who have been a part of the U.S. Under-20 national team. Sophomores Aaron Maund and Brendan King, along with incoming freshman Dillon Powers, all have spent time with the U-20 squad. Maund will miss a portion of the 2009 campaign as he will be playing with the United States at the Under-20 World Cup, which will take place Sept. 24-Oct. 16 in Egypt.
"The fun thing about this team is that it's an exciting team," adds Clark. "There are some fabulous players. We've never had a team that boasts three players that have played with the U.S. Under-20 national team. We also have three lads (Bright Dike, Andrew Quinn, Cory Rellas) coming back for a fifth year. The other thing I like about this group is seeing how the upperclassmen handled the spring. They are a team that likes to be together. They're a very committed and determined team and I love how the drive comes from them. They are a hungry group."
Those captains will be relied on to navigate the Irish through another difficult schedule. Notre Dame has eight squads on its 2009 slate that qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season. Included in those teams are 2008 national semifinalists St. John's and Wake Forest.
"Once again, we have a fantastic schedule," states Clark. "I believe last year we had the third toughest schedule in the country and this one should rival it closely. One of the things at Notre Dame that we try to do is find the best teams we can play to give our student-athletes the most competitive experience they can get. Our non-conference schedule is very tough and you combine that with the strength of the BIG EAST and that should make for a fantastic challenge, but I think we'll be ready for it."
The Fighting Irish will open the campaign on Tuesday, Sept. 1 against Michigan in the new Alumni Stadium. Irish soccer alums Tom Crotty and Rob Snyder were the lead benefactors for the $5.7 million facility. The entire program, from the current players and coaches to the wide alumni base, are eagerly anticipating the new era of Notre Dame soccer that the stadium will bring.
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2009 Fighting Irish:
"Up front we have Dike and Steven Perry as the high forwards," comments Clark. "We've got Jeb Brovsky and Tamba Samba as the two under forwards. We then have two guys who did very, very well in the spring in Michael Rose and Andrew Luttrell. Both can play in the wide midfield as well. It'll be interesting to see how they do."
Brovsky, a junior, started every match last season and tallied 16 points on five goals and six assists en route to receiving third-team all-BIG EAST accolades. Samba, a senior, appeared in 17 contests in 2008 and scored two goals, while Perry came off the bench in 20 games during his sophomore campaign and notched one goal and two assists.
Rose, a sophomore, and Luttrell, a junior, have yet to play in a match for the Irish but Clark and the coaching staff will depend on the depth they provide in the attacking unit. Freshman Kyle Richard can play either up front or in the midfield.
Thomas ranked second on the team in goals (eight) and points (21) last season. He led all BIG EAST midfielders in scoring and earned second-team all-conference and all-region honors. Donohue was a starter in 20 games last season and had a breakout year with five goals and five assists. The third senior on the projected starting midfield line is Morrow, who registered eight points on two goals and four assists last season from his wide midfield position.
King and Thiermann were valuable off the bench one year ago and they will most likely occupy that same role in 2009. King, a sophomore, played in every match during his freshman season and compiled two goals and three assists. Thiermann was a key substitute in the first 14 matches of his sophomore season before missing the final seven contests with an injury. The junior is one of the top athletes on the squad.
Providing additional depth to the already stout midfield line will be a group of underclassmen that features 2008-09 Gatorade National High School Player of the Year for men's soccer in freshman Dillon Powers. Sophomore Adam Mena, who did not see action as a rookie, had a good spring and should make his collegiate debut this season. Clark sees the younger players having a role this season, but more importantly he wants them to develop in order to be mainstays in the lineup for the years to come.
"The young lads will be very important the following year when we lose Thomas, Donohue and Morrow," states the Irish mentor. "Adam Mena did well in the spring, which was terrific. Mena can play both wide and central. Danny O'Leary (a freshman) can play a lot of different positions. He's a very strong athlete and could also play up front or as a fullback. (Freshman) Bob Novak can also play in the wide midfield. (Freshman) Eric Tilley can play out wide or in the central. The freshmen will be trying to find their feet initially, but you never know what impact they'll have as the season progresses."
While Notre Dame boasts a tremendous amount of experience in both the attack and midfield, the defense has several holes to fill. The Fighting Irish lost three of their four starters to graduation and the fourth may miss a good portion of the season. Gone is All-American Matt Besler in the central defense along with Jack Traynor and Alex Yoshinaga at fullback. Maund played every minute of his rookie season in the central defense and will occupy that spot again this season when he is available to the Irish before and after the Under-20 World Cup.
Despite all of those losses, the Irish will still have a veteran on the backline. Rellas is back and fully healthy after missing all but six games last season due to a knee injury that was suffered in the spring of 2008.
"Getting Cory Rellas back will help fill the void that was created through graduation," says Clark. "We have to find someone to fit in when Aaron (Maund) leaves. We have a few people who can fill in there. John Schaefer is a senior who hasn't played much outside of the spring, but he's done well. He's a tough, hard player who could certainly fill in there. We've also got (sophomore) Chris Sutton, who we didn't have this spring because he had shoulder surgery. He's back playing and doing well. It's going to be something that we have to sort out, but the nice thing is that we've got options."
Schaefer has played in two career games, while Sutton saw action in three contests as a freshman. Junior walk-on Craig Krzyskowski also provides depth at center back.
Clark also sees several options at fullback. Sophomore Sean McGrath served as an understudy to Traynor last season at left back. McGrath had a solid spring campaign as did sophomore walk-on Michael Knapp, who is entering his first season with the Fighting Irish. Freshman Grant Van De Casteele brings versatility as he can play either the left or right back position.
At right back, Notre Dame will need a replacement for Yoshinaga. The two favorites to fill that void heading into fall camp are juniors Bilal Duckett and Greg Klazura. Neither has seen time on the pitch yet for the Irish, but both did well in the spring and Clark knows they are more than capable to handle the task.
"This is going to be the challenge," Clark says of finding replacements for the defense. "The defense is where we had three positions graduated so that is where we are most vulnerable, but I think we'll come through. With the probability of losing Aaron for a bit, you can technically say we lost the whole back four from last season. The nice thing is that we have a lot of answers. We had a good spring where we played a lot of games and a lot of the lads got their opportunity to show their paces."
Seniors Andrew Quinn and Philip Tuttle give the Fighting Irish a valuable one-two punch in goal. Quinn expects to be fully recovered from a shoulder injury that made him miss the final four games of the 2008 campaign. While Quinn missed those matches, Tuttle stepped in and picked up some key experience.
Quinn boasts a career record of 12-6-3 and a 0.99 goals-against average. Tuttle is 2-3-0 with a 1.29 goals-against average. Sophomore Will Walsh has yet to see game action, but he possesses a tremendous amount of potential and would certainly be ready if called upon.
"I think we have three excellent goalkeepers," states Clark. "We certainly have the dilemma as far as who will start. (Andrew) Quinny has to get back in and prove himself after the injury. (Philip) Tuttle will certainly have some more confidence because he got his feet wet last season and Will (Walsh) also got a lot of game time in the spring in did quite well. That's a nice battle and a nice problem to have."