Aug. 27, 2008
Resting on his laurels is not something Bobby Clark does. After taking the Notre Dame men's soccer program to the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals for the first time ever in 2006, he guided the team back to the 'Elite Eight' in 2007 along with winning a share of the BIG EAST regular-season crown. However, Clark sees bigger and better things for the Fighting Irish as he enters his eighth season as head coach.
"I think with expectations, you can never go backwards," states Clark. "I think every year this team has gotten a little bit better. The nice thing with last year is that we did get a trophy in the cabinet with the league title. I think trophies and how far you go in the NCAA Tournament don't always tell the whole story, but we know that we will be judged with if we win trophies. At the end of the day, we knocked right on the door. We won a league title, but we lost in the championship of the conference tournament and we just fell short of getting to the final four of the NCAAs."
Despite losing two All-Americans and a total of four all-conference performers, the Irish program has become one that reloads instead of one that rebuilds. Notre Dame returns seven starters and 14 letterwinners from a team that went 14-5-5 last season and fell at eventual national champion Wake Forest, 1-0, in overtime in the NCAA quarterfinals. Along the way, Notre Dame picked up a share of the BIG EAST Blue Division championship and advanced to the finals of the conference tournament.
"There's no question that there's a very strong returning squad," says Clark. "We lost some very good players, but I always feel that if you're a good program, you're going to graduate good players every year. Let's be honest, if we remain being a strong program this is going to happen every year. That's something we have to deal with on a yearly basis and I think we've done a good job with that. We feel confident that we have young players that can come in and fill the gaps left by a strong graduating class."
Three all-BIG EAST honorees are back for the Irish. Senior defenders Matt Besler, who is a captain for the second straight season, and Jack Traynor return as all-league performers and they will be looked upon to solidify the Irish backline. Matt Armstrong copped honorable-mention all-BIG EAST accolades during his freshman campaign as he helped anchor the Irish midfield.
Armstrong was not the only freshman contributing to the Irish success last season. Notre Dame got major contributions from three other rookies, Jeb Brovsky (F), Steven Perry (F) and Josh Thiermann (M). Those opportunities arose due to injuries to some of the Irish veterans, but the young crew made the most of their chances. Clark and the Irish hope to get similar results from this year's seven-man class that is ranked 12th nationally by College Soccer News.
"It's a funny thing with freshmen because all of them that we've recruited have been key players on their teams and possibly for the first time in their career they'll have to sit and take some time learning," states Clark. "There's always one or two of them that will come through and you're never quite sure who it will be at this moment in the preseason and it's exciting. Matt Armstrong came in and filled the shoes of Greg Dalby, a two-time first-team All-American. Last year Tamba (Samba) was injured and we wondered who was going to come in and give Kurt Martin time. Jeb Brovsky was able to step up to the plate and do that. That's one of the exciting things when you look at your freshmen, sometimes its kids you least expect to do it. I think we have a great class, a very exciting freshman class."
The incoming freshmen are not the only boost for the Irish heading into the '08 season. Senior Bright Dike returns after missing all of last season and junior Tamba Samba is back after battling injuries last year that kept him out of all but two games. Dike and Samba will spearhead the Irish attacking unit.
While that forward combo will need to score goals, the Irish are looking for a new goalkeeper to stop the opponent scoring. Three-year starter Chris Cahill, an all-BIG EAST player, has graduated and the Irish boast a quartet of goalkeepers on their roster. Senior Andrew Quinn is the only one with game experience and he will likely get the nod to take over for Cahill, yet junior Philip Tuttle should give him a fight.
Junior tri-captain Michael Thomas is slotted to join Armstrong in the central midfield. A jaw injury that was suffered in the '07 season opener kept Thomas out of eight games and likely cost him any personal accolades. The team tri-captain is fully healed and ready to lead the Irish this season.
Another player to keep an eye on in the midfield is fellow junior Justin Morrow. After two solid seasons with the Irish, Clark and the coaching staff believes Morrow is ready for a breakout year.
Joining Morrow in the wide area of the midfield will be fifth-year senior Alex Yoshinaga. Yoshinaga is the top returning scorer for Notre Dame. Last season, he returned to the Irish lineup after missing most of the previous campaign with a collarbone injury. He posted a career-high nine points on three goals and three assists. Yoshinaga will be serving as a team tri-captain for the second straight season.
While Yoshinaga and the rest of the Irish seniors will look to end their college careers on a high note, the entire Notre Dame squad wants to put a positive conclusion on another chapter of the program. The 2008 campaign will mark the 19th and final season for the Fighting Irish at Alumni Field. The field has been the home of the Irish since 1990 and will be replaced with a brand new $5.7 million state-of-the-art facility that will be the open for the 2009 season.
"We'd like to leave Alumni Field with a legacy and great memories," says Clark. "That's the aim, but we know there are a lot of strong teams out there and it's not going to just happen. We have to work hard to make it a reality."
The Fighting Irish will clearly have a major hole to fill in the attacking unit with the loss of two-time first-team All-American and 2006 M.A.C. Hermann Trophy winner Joseph Lapira. Instead of looking to one person to fill the shoes of Lapira, Clark hopes to get contributions from several players. The key cogs at the forward position figure to be Dike and Samba. Dike returns to the Irish lineup after not playing last season, while Samba was limited to just two games in '07 due to injuries.
As a sophomore during the 2006 season, Dike registered six points on two goals and two assists. However, that season Lapira was making national headlines and now Dike will be looked upon to shoulder a lot of the weight when it comes to the Fighting Irish offense.
Dike will not have to go at it alone as Samba hopes to have a breakout season after struggling with injuries one year ago. Samba has played in six career games, but that number will surely rise this season.
"Although we've lost two terrific players in Joe Lapira and Kurt Martin, we get two guys (Dike and Samba) that we didn't have last year," states Clark. "These two look exciting and then you throw in two guys that saw a lot of time as freshmen last year because of those injuries in Steven Perry and Jeb Brovsky. So you have four guys who have a lot of experience."
The absence of Dike and Samba last season may have been a blessing in disguise as Perry and Brovsky both played instrumental roles for Notre Dame during their rookie campaigns. Brovsky played in all 24 matches and registered five points on two goals and one assist. Perry appeared in 12 games and dished out one assist.
Just like Perry and Brovsky from a year ago, freshman Michael Rose may find himself thrust into major minutes this season depending on the circumstances. That is something the coaching staff would feel comfortable with given Rose's pedigree. Rose was named to the College Soccer News `100 freshmen to keep an eye on' list.
"Michael Rose is an exciting young player," comments Clark. "He was an All-American and he is fresh from winning a national championship with the New Development Academy. He was playing every minute for the best under-18 team in the country. You don't look for freshmen to come in and be impact players but I know he'll be somebody looking for time."
Also providing valuable depth to the Irish attack corps will be sophomore Andrew Luttrell. The Granger, Ind. native did not see the pitch as a freshman, but he may push for time this season.
"Andrew Luttrell is a local boy, and he's been doing very well with his PDL team in the summer," adds Clark. "I've been very impressed with him during the games I've managed to see. He could be starting to put his nose in looking for some time."
While the Irish may have holes to fill in the attack, the midfield unit will no doubt be a strong suit for the 2008 squad. Notre Dame boasts two quality central midfielders in Thomas and Armstrong. The duo is back at full health after suffering injuries in the past year. Armstrong endured a foot injury that kept him out of the last half of the '08 spring campaign, while Thomas missed eight matches last season with a jaw injury that occurred in the season opener.
There is a trio of candidates to start at the two wide areas of the midfield. Yoshinaga along with juniors Morrow and Dave Donohue will all be key cogs for the Irish midfield unit. Yoshinaga brings a plethora of experience to the Irish as he has started 62 of his 68 career games while tallying eight goals and six assists.
In his career, Morrow has appeared in 45 matches, including 20 starts, and has totaled eight points on three goals and two assists. Clark feels Morrow is on the verge of great things in 2008.
"We are excited with Justin Morrow this year and we feel it could be his breakthrough year as a junior," states the Irish head coach. "He's been very good his first two years but I feel his is ready to really break onto the scene."
After appearing in just four games as a freshman, Donohue played in all 24 contests one season ago. He produced some key moments for the Irish, including a goal in the 2-0 victory at seventh-ranked Santa Clara during the NCAA Tournament Round of 16. For the season, he had three goals, which ranked him in a tie for third on the team.
"Dave Donohue is now a veteran in the midfield," adds Clark. "He is a little bit like Yoshinaga because you have him tabbed as a wide guy but he can also play well if you put him in the middle of the midfield."
As with Brovsky and Perry on the attack, fellow sophomore Thiermann was a key contributor to the squad during his rookie campaign. Thiermann appeared in 11 games and the highlight of his season was the game winner in Notre Dame's 1-0 victory over St. John's in the quarterfinals of the BIG EAST tournament.
"Josh Theirmann really started to come on and got his confidence towards the end of last year," says Clark. "He came on and scored a vital goal against St. John's in the BIG EAST tournament. He actually came on against Wake Forest in overtime. I think Josh will be excited to really start to stake a claim to play."
A freshman that will look to have an impact on this year's version of the Fighting Irish is Brendan King. The Illinois native became the program's first early enrollee as he began classes at the University in January and produced a solid spring campaign for the Irish. Just like Rose, King was tabbed as a freshman to watch by College Soccer News.
"Brendan King is a freshman who came in January and had a terrific spring and can give good playing time in the middle," says Clark. "He can also play wide. He's played out wide a lot for the (U.S.) Under-17 National Team. We like him in the middle but he's very versatile."
Rounding out the Fighting Irish midfielders is sophomore Greg Klazura and freshman Adam Mena. Klazura did not see game action as a freshman, yet he is coming off a summer in which he was a key part of the Chicago Fire Super-20 team that captured the North American National Championship in early August. He was joined on the team by his Notre Dame teammates King and Thiermann.
"We have some other younger lads that may look to contribute as well," states Clark. "Greg Klazura had some good outings in the spring and I'm sure we'll be looking to push him a little bit more. Adam Mena is also an exciting prospect and could fight for some time."
The hallmark of any Fighting Irish team is a solid backline and that should be no different this season. Notre Dame returns the majority of a defense that posted 11 shutouts one year ago. Traynor will be back for his fourth season of starting at left back, while his classmate Besler has started every game over the past two seasons and will anchor the center of the backline once again.
Fellow senior Cory Rellas would have looked to team up with Besler in the central defense, however a knee injury suffered in the final match of the spring, a contest against the Mexico Under-20 squad, will keep him out during the early part of the campaign.
"In the middle of the back four, it looked like it was pretty well set up with Rellas and Besler, but then Cory tore his ACL when we played the Mexico Under-20s," comments Clark. "Obviously Besler will be fit and he should be the left-sided central defender. Jack Traynor will be coming back and he'll be a senior and be at left back. I don't know who the other center back will be. There are several ways we can go. Cory has made terrific progress so I think he has a good chance of coming back for some of the season. I don't think he'll be there at the start of the season so we have to look at some people that can go in there. Right now we aren't sure."
Senior Kyle Dagan is a possibility at central defense, yet he is coming off an injury that occurred during the summer. He came on strong last season as he appeared in 16 games, including 10 starts, after not seeing the field at all his first two seasons due to a strong veteran presence above him. Dagan's time may be limited at the beginning of the season as well. The health status of these key players may force Clark tinker with the lineup.
"Michael Thomas has been an absolute stalwart in the midfield and he is more than capable of playing in the middle of the back," adds Clark. "If we did that then we'd have the Kansas kids in the middle of the back with Thomas and Besler."
Dagan is also a candidate to replace All-American Ryan Miller at right back. Other possibilities at that position are junior John Schaefer and sophomore Bilal Duckett. Schaefer has played in two career games, while Duckett did not see action as a rookie as he battled a foot injury.
"We've graduated Ryan Miller and at least at the beginning of the season we've lost Rellas and Dagan, but I still feel there's enough depth at the back and I feel it'll be quite exciting just trying to find out who can actually fit in the best back there," says Clark.
There will be a few others competing for time in the defense. Sutton and Maund may be relied on to see time in the defense or midfield because of their skills.
"Aaron Maund is a very versatile player that could play in the middle of the back or wide in the back and he can also play in the midfield," states Clark. "Chris Sutton is the same. He could be an excellent central defender but also an excellent sitting midfield player. These guys all have potential."
Senior Terry Lee and freshman Sean McGrath will provide depth at the left back position behind Traynor. Lee, who has played in one game during his Irish career, will hope to contribute during his final collegiate campaign. Clark sees McGrath as being an understudy to Traynor this season.
In goal, Notre Dame will have to replace a two-time all-BIG EAST performer in Cahill, yet Quinn seems more than capable of handling the job. Quinn, a senior, has split time with Cahill during the early portions of the past two seasons. Junior Philip Tuttle is another possibility in goal. Besides Quinn and Tuttle, the Irish carry two more keepers in senior Luke Seibolt and freshman Will Walsh.
"The goalkeeping is an interesting situation," says Clark. "It's going to be a real fight over who is going to win the starting spot. Of the four goalkeepers that we have, Quinn is the only one that has actually seen time in the previous falls and he's done well. Back in 2006 he did very well in several games and in the (NCAA) tournament. He also played some last season so he's experienced."
For his career, Quinn has played in nine games, including five starts, and has produced a 2-2-1 record. He has made 26 saves, while surrendering seven goals for a 0.97 goals-against average. Quinn has also notched two shutouts.
Walsh may be the keeper of the future for Notre Dame. He was the third Fighting Irish rookie named to the College Soccer News `100 freshmen to watch' list.
"Phil Tuttle will push Quinn," adds Clark. "Seibolt will possibly back them up and Will Walsh has tremendous credentials and we are very impressed with him. In fairness, he's a freshman and his first job will be to settle into school. But he has all the credentials. He's a big, strong boy and really looks the part."
Notre Dame will be facing another challenging slate once again this season. The Fighting Irish will play 10 teams during the regular season that qualified for the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
The Irish open the '08 campaign with their annual trek down state to take part in the adidas/IU Credit Union Classic in Bloomington, Ind. Notre Dame squares off with Akron to open the event on Friday, Aug. 29 before facing Duke two days later.
A five-game homestand will be next for the Irish. The home portion of the ledger begins with the seventh annual Mike Berticelli Memorial Tournament at Alumni Field. The Irish will meet Dartmouth and South Florida on Sept. 5th and 7th, respectively, at the tournament. The match against USF will not count as a BIG EAST contest.
Notre Dame will officially open conference play at home against Marquette on Sept. 11. The Irish will then play host to league matches with St. John's (Sept. 19) and Syracuse (Sept. 21).
"We have a great schedule," says Clark. "The BIG EAST is always tough. We had seven teams that made the NCAAs last year. I don't think there's any question that it's arguably the best conference in the country. There are a few other conferences that are up there, but it's certainly one of the best. We have 11 conference games, but we actually added another one with South Florida so we actually have 12 games against BIG EAST teams. Those are 12 superb teams and it doesn't get any better than that. Then you throw in Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State and you have our own tournament and Indiana's tournament."
A three-game road trek will take the Fighting Irish to BIG EAST foes Cincinnati (Sept. 26) and Louisville (Sept. 28) before wrapping up with a non-conference showdown at Michigan (Oct. 1).
Notre Dame will return home for three straight contests. The Irish welcome in Georgetown on Oct. 5 before hosting Big Ten Conference member Michigan State on Oct. 8. The Fighting Irish will be looking for a measure of revenge against the Spartans after they captured a 1-0 decision over Notre Dame last season in East Lansing, Mich. That snapped a nine-game unbeaten streak for the Irish. The homestand ends with a conference tilt against Pittsburgh (Oct. 11).
The Irish will head back down to Bloomington to face Indiana on Oct. 16. The in-state rivalry has produced some memorable games over the past few years and the two squads will look to give the fans a show once again. Indiana topped the Irish, 3-2, last season at Alumni Field.
The final regular-season home game for the Irish will be a match-up with Providence on Oct. 19. After the showdown with the Friars, Notre Dame will hit the road for three straight contests.
A trip to Seton Hall on Oct. 22 is first on the docket. The Fighting Irish will then have a key BIG EAST Blue Division battle with Connecticut. The Irish and Huskies played to a thrilling 3-3 tie during the '07 regular season at Notre Dame. Connecticut would later top Notre Dame, 2-0, in the BIG EAST tournament final in Storrs, Conn. The regular season will conclude for the Irish at West Virginia on Nov. 1.
Notre Dame will then look to make noise in the BIG EAST Championship (Nov. 5-16). The semifinals and finals are slated to take place in Tampa, Fla. for the first time ever.
After the conference tournament, the Irish hope to see their name among the 48-team NCAA Championship field for the eighth straight season. All of those consecutive appearances have occurred during the Bobby Clark era. Tournament play begins on Nov. 21 and College Cup Weekend will be held in Frisco, Texas on Dec. 12 and 14.
"There aren't many schedules that are better or tougher than ours," adds Clark. "But I think that's something that we try to do. That's certainly my philosophy. We go out and find the best games that we can possibly find. When you play 18 games and two exhibition games before you go to the (BIG EAST) tournament, you want to make them the best you can. You want to make them exciting for your student-athletes and I want to test myself as a coach and you want the players to be tested so we look for the best schedule that we can get."
Clark and the Irish will navigate the schedule with a new addition to the coaching staff. BJ Craig joined Notre Dame in March as an assistant after serving the same role at Louisville during the 2007 season. Prior to that, he had a four-year stint as head coach at Saint Francis University (Pa.). Craig replaced Jamie Clark, who took the head coaching position at Harvard University, on the Irish staff.
"I'm very lucky because BJ was a very successful head coach at a program that had never won until he got there," says Clark. "It's fabulous to have someone who really is another head coach. He knows all the little things that need to be done and he combines with (assistant coach) Chad Riley, who knows this program inside and out and loves this program. I think we have a great staff. I feel like we have a nice close-knit group and I think everybody understands the system we play and they also are one with our philosophy. We have a special philosophy at Notre Dame and it's about playing good soccer but it's more than that. It's about being a quality team and being a good advertisement for our sport and the University."