Sep 6, 2013
By Pete LaFleur ('90)
Some student-athletes are destined to come to Notre Dame. Others are not. And then there are those who parlay chance occurrences into opportunities, and ultimately end up starring under the Golden Dome.
Current men's soccer co-captain Grant Van De Casteele falls under that third group, to a degree. The Dallas-area native, from the soccer hotbed of Plano, initially was not being seriously recruited by any of the nation's top soccer schools, despite playing for the highly-regarded Andromeda Soccer Club.
That all changed on a December afternoon in 2007, the day that Notre Dame head men's soccer coach Bobby Clark first saw the player who would become a rare four-year starting center back for his program.
Since he was 11 years old, Van De Casteele had been playing for the Andromeda Soccer Club, a fierce rival of the nationally-elite Dallas Texans. One of his closest teammates with Andromeda was future Notre Dame classmate Dillon Powers, a top midfielder for the Irish from 2009-12. Powers - currently a top Major League Soccer rookie-of-the-year candidate with the Colorado Rapids - and Van De Casteele helped lead Andromeda, coached by Dillon's father Michael, to the 2008 USYS national title.
Former Notre Dame assistant coaches Chad Riley and Jamie Clark had targeted Powers as a prime recruit for the Notre Dame program and informed Clark that the head coach had to see the promising midfielder play, while at the Final Four club tournament in Cary, N.C. It turned out to be a highly productive scouting session for Clark, yielding one of those unexpected "2-for-1s" that sometimes occur in the world of college sports recruiting.
"I had told my assistants to not tell me the name or number of the primary player they had spotted, but of course it took me all of five seconds to pick out Dillon Powers as being a very good player," recalls Clark. "As I was watching the game, I saw Grant playing as a left back and really liked him. I thought he was a little bit of a `sleeper' at that time. He was certainly mobile with very good feet and nice touch.
"As I watched him that day, Grant made good decisions with the ball and I liked the way he came forward out of the left back position, so we decided we would try to watch him a little bit." The Notre Dame coaches later followed up with Powers seeking input about his Andromeda teammate and Powers confirmed that Van De Casteele indeed was a high-level player who could fit in well into their system at Notre Dame.
Up to that point, Van De Casteele had assumed that Notre Dame did not have any interest in recruiting him, but he soon learned from Powers that there was mutual interest from the Irish.
"Dillon had come back from his recruiting visit to Notre Dame and he told me the coaches really liked me and that I should take a visit to the campus," says Van De Casteele, who earned third team all-BIG EAST Conference honors following the 2012 season.
"Dillon kind of pushed for me to be recruited by Notre Dame and we were really good friends, so the opportunity to play together at the next level was something that we would be interested in. When I took my own campus visit, I was pretty much sold. I'm not gonna lie, Notre Dame probably was the best soccer team trying to recruit me and it presented a great opportunity."
After not playing throughout his first season in the program (2009), and thus ultimately maintaining an extra year of eligibility, Van De Casteele has been a mainstay in Notre Dame's starting lineup ever since - opening all 62 games during the past three-plus seasons as a member of the starting 11.
An emerging MLS prospect in his own right, the 6-foot-2 Van De Casteele has carved out an impressive all-around career as a Notre Dame student-athlete. The double-major already has received his finance degree and is nine hours short of adding an economics degree to his wall this December. His impressive 3.72 cumulative grade-point average and status as a multi-year starter helped earned Van De Casteele the prestigious BIG EAST Make Scholar-Athlete of the Year for the 2012-13 academic year.
Eight previous Notre Dame student-athletes also have received that top academic honor from the BIG EAST, including women's soccer players Jen Renola, Jenny Streiffer and Vanessa Pruzinsky and three basketball players (Pat Garrity, Ruth Riley and Tim Abromaitis), plus track hurdler Errol Williams and softball player Jarrah Myers.
Van De Casteele - who recently has combined with teammate Max Lachowecki to become a (minor) YouTube sensation with their online celebrity interview show Grant and Max 1080 - readily admits that he was "not very serious" when it came to academics or athletics during his days at Frisco Centennial High School. "Like many people at Notre Dame now, a lot of my schoolwork in high school was not that challenging," says the current Irish co-captain.
"And in high school I didn't really take soccer too seriously either, it was just something I did for fun. I had known most of my teammates since we were 11 years old and it basically was a chance to hang out with my friends for a few hours."
With the class material and soccer field often failing to capture Van De Casteele's full attention during his prep days, he gravitated to humor. "Yes, it's true, in high school I was joking around lot," he says. "I remember being bummed out when I graduated because I was going to miss goofing around in class. I had this idea of college being very strict and structured but was pleasantly surprised that I still was able to joke around in some of my classes here."
Van De Casteele's humorous side gained a social-media platform a year ago, when he was approached with the idea of hosting a comedy-based interview show that would be posted on YouTube as part of the newly-created Notre Dame student-athlete blog, Through Irish Eyes. As the men's soccer team's representative on the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, Van De Casteele seemed a logical choice ... but he had an even better idea.
"Max Lachowecki is hilarious, the funniest person I know, so I thought it would work much better if we did the show together. The whole concept was completely foreign to us but we've had a blast doing the show so far," says Van De Casteele.
The resulting show - Grant and Max 1080 (degrees, with of course the degree symbol) - has developed a cult following around the Notre Dame campus. Mike Harrity, a member of the Notre Dame Student Welfare & Development staff, proposed the initial idea after having watched the Between Two Ferns online comedy series, featuring Zach Galifianakis (best known for his role in the Hangover movies). In the online series, Galifianakis conducts a series of celebrity interviews in a low-budget and uniquely offbeat fashion.
The signature episode so far in the young history of Grant and Max 1080 is their interview with ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas (it's only a few minutes and worth the look).
Prior to his Notre Dame career, Van De Casteele had never played at the center back position. "I started out in soccer as a forward and was really fast as a kid, I think I peaked athletically a little early," laughs the four-year Irish starter. "I also played some outside midfield and then moved to outside back for my club team, in a 4-4-2 formation. I would get forward and try to be creative on the ball but I wasn't that good at defense, I was more offensively inclined."
Considering the extensive youth soccer network and collection of elite clubs throughout the state of Texas, one would assume that Van De Casteele and his prep teammates had plenty of options to play Division I soccer in their home state. To the contrary, SMU is the only established Division I men's soccer program in the state of Texas, which nonetheless features noteworthy women's soccer teams at schools such as Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech and even Stephen F. Austin.
"There definitely is a big difference between the quantity of high-level men's soccer players on the youth level in Texas as compared to the limited options to play college soccer in the state, especially of course at DI," notes Van De Casteele.
"Texas obviously is a state where football is king and Title IX also poses an issue. It's kind of a fact about Texas that you grow up knowing and just kind of accept that you likely will have to play your college soccer out of state."
A quick search through the record book reveals that Texas youth soccer has played a big role in the history of Notre Dame men's soccer, both overall and in recent years. Van De Casteele is one of 28 Texas natives to have played for the Irish, including three others on the current roster: senior goalkeeper Pat Wall (Sugarland), junior defender Trevor Gonzales (Allen) and midfielder newcomer Brandon Aubrey (also a Plano product).
Riley, a Houston native, and classmate Greg Martin both came to Notre Dame from Texas and played lead roles with the Irish soccer team during the 2000-03 seasons. Martin joins Van De Casteele as one of several Plano natives to fashion strong careers with the Notre Dame men's soccer program over the years, with that group also including defender Dale Rellas ('02-'06) and his brother, midfielder Cory ('05'-'09), plus Academic All-America defender Chris Dean, who capped his career as a recipient of Notre Dame athletics most prestigious honor, the Byron V. Kanaley Award, in 1995). Other Texans of note that have played for the Irish include early-'90s goalkeeper Bert Bader (Dallas), late-'90s defender Matt McNew (Arlington), and mid-'80s midfielder Marvin Lett (Dallas), who recently served on the board of directors for the Notre Dame Monogram Club.
Of course, the state of Texas also has played a huge role in the history of Notre Dame women's soccer - with the program's 31 all-time players (five current) from that state including the likes of two-time Hermann Trophy national player of the year Kerri Hanks (Allen) and recent Honda national player of the year Melissa Henderson (Garland). Two Plano natives - All-America midfielder Courtney Barg and defender Jessica Schuveiller - starred for the Irish from 2008-11 - with others of note over the years including forward/defender Monica Gonzalez (Richardson), goalkeepers Liza Wagner (Spring) and Lauren Karas (Flower Mound) and clutch goal scorer Amanda Guertin (Grapevine).
When Van De Casteele first arrived at Notre Dame back in the fall of 2009, the Irish coaches made their pitch for moving the young defender to the inside of the back line and the newcomer naturally was open to the change. Notre Dame was entering that season with a pair of highly-regarded pro prospects - senior Cory Rellas and Aaron Maund - as the likely starting center backs. Rellas ended up suffering a season-ending ACL knee injury 14 minutes into the opener and the Irish ended up sliding another senior, John Schaefer, into the vacated starting position.
Cracking a college soccer lineup - especially with a high-level men's program - can be a tall task, as Van De Casteele found out during his first semester at Notre Dame. "I was not good enough to see the field that first season, got to spend a lot of time with the bench and the Gatorade cooler," jokes the current fifth-year senior.
Clark notes that his program, over the years, has welcomed "load of players" who needed a year or two before melding fully into the team. "Unless you've had extensive experience on a high level of soccer - such as Dillon Powers did with some youth national teams - it's simply very hard to come into a program as a freshman and make an impact," says the 13th-year Notre Dame head coach.
"We of course liked Grant but he had to acclimatize a bit," adds Clark, who always is good to provide some vocabulary morsels to any sound bite, with the bonus factor of that his distinctively deliberate Scottish accent. "I think the adjustment is even harder for a fall sport, because they get to campus and within two weeks we already are playing games. It's a pretty difficult transition."
With Rellas and Schaefer both moving on to graduation following the 2009 campaign, Van De Casteele made the most of his opportunity by turning in a strong 2010 spring season. The eager youngster was moved into a starting role and formed a strong tandem with Maund, who currently plays for Major League Soccer's Real Salt Lake.
Maund and Van De Casteele formed the core of the Notre Dame back line throughout the 2010 and '11 seasons, with current senior Andrew O'Malley moving into the open center back position during the past two seasons. The rightfooted Van De Casteele actually played as the left-center back while paired with Maund but now has slid over to the right-center, with O'Malley to his left.
The Irish defense - which has allowed slightly below a goal per game over the past three seasons (19 in 20 games during 2010; 16 in 18 during '11; 20 in 22 during '12) - has the makings for being a significantly more airtight unit in 2013. With all six defensive-third starters (the 'keeper Wall, Lachowecki, O'Malley, Van De Casteele, senior right back Luke Mishu and junior defensive midfielder Nick Besler) returning from 2012, the experience and familiarity factor could pay big dividends.
"Our current back line, especially when you factor in Pat Wall and Nick Besler, has that benefit of playing together which will give them a huge advantage when going through a really tough schedule this year," notes second-year Notre Dame assistant coach Greg Dalby, who knows a little something about playing on a strong back line.
As a sophomore in 2004, Dalby played alongside three fellow defenders (center back Jack Stewart, left back Kevin Goldthwaite and right back Ryan Miller) who similarly became MLS draft picks, while goalkeeper Chris Sawyer also was drafted into the league.
"This group of defenders that we have now has more athleticism and more fitness than the group I played with," adds Dalby. "And Pat Wall reminds me a lot of Chris Sawyer, he is a clear number-one goalkeeper and really strong leader with great knowledge of the game. He keeps the guys in front of him accountable and has amazing feet, making great decisions while passing out of pressure.
"With all the time that our defensive core guys have spent player together, their communication and how they relate to each other on the field is only going to get stronger and stronger throughout this season."
Van De Casteele credits his mom Barbara with helping create his sense of him humor and his favorite comedians include Will Ferrell - his anticipation for the release of Anchorman II is palpable - and Jerry Seinfeld, "I used to watch a lot of his old standup stuff," he says.
"A lot of my friends and I have the same sense of humor. It's a lot of quick wit stuff, I like to think of it as intelligence humor," says Van De Casteele. "There's not a lot of planning or structure to my humor, I just spit it out and hopefully someone laughs at it."
Clark - a legendary goalkeeper back in the day while playing in his native Scotland - exudes a wistful charisma but certainly is all business when the whistle blows. And his team follows that lead.
"Our team knows when to be light and when to focus, but I think it's nice if at times they can relax," says the Notre Dame head coach. "When you are being funny, you've just got to be careful. There are things we can do in the locker room and there are things we do in public. Grant and Max both are smart guys, they know when things are appropriate and when they are not."
Only a few years removed from his own collegiate playing career, Dalby adds his own take on mixing humor with seriousness.
"When all our guys cross the line on the field, they know it's time to be serious, but I also thing they really have fun being serious on the field," says the former All-American.
"Our players have lot of personality off the field and I think that personality transfers onto what you see on the field, in guys who are resilient, who want to compete, want to fight and want to win. Guys like Grant and Max epitomize that approach."
With only four months left in his career as a Notre Dame student, Van De Casteele is determined to see his playing days with the Irish extend into the middle of December and the College Cup championship weekend. One year ago, the Irish had compiled an historic season that including winning a Big East title and entering the NCAAs as the tournament's top seed, with a 16-3-1 record.
A bitter 2-1 overtime loss to rival Indiana in the NCAA round-of-16 brought an abrupt end to Notre Dame's promising 2012 season. A couple weeks later, Indiana won the NCAA title after defeating Georgetown in the title game. Earlier in the season, the Irish twice had defeated Georgetown while also beating Indiana, 1-0, in a regular-season matchup. Van De Casteele headed home the lone goal, the fourth of his career, in the win over the Hoosiers in Bloomington.
"It was especially painful to see two teams that, prior to NCAA tournament, we had gone 3-0 against and they were playing each other in the final of the College Cup," says Van De Casteele. "It made everything a little bit more devastating and I ended up not even watching that game, because it was so upsetting.
"The fact of the matter is that last year, despite all of our regular-season success, we didn't really have true success in the NCAA tournament. The true measure of success is how you finish the year, that's something that guys on the team should really be able to buy into."
Van De Casteele was kind enough to provide us with a short scouting report/information capsule on the three teammates who start alongside him on the back line:
Junior left back Max Lachowecki (Evansville, Ind.) - "Obviously one of the funniest people I've ever met, something about his voice it's kind of nasally and pretty much whatever he says will comes out funny. He could say I just went to the dining hall and had a sandwich and it wound be hilarious. Max is pretty attacking oriented and very good on the ball. Despite being a defender, he is an offensive threat and we try to use him in situations that can work out well for us and lead to goals.
Senior right back Luke Mishu (Knoxville, Tenn.) - Similar to Max, we like to use Luke offensively and build the attack from the flanks. He is deceptively, freakishly strong and was a gymnast when he was a kid. He destroys it in the weight room. Luke went on a leadership retreat a few weeks ago and was able to climb this incredible difficult rock wall, and his reputation went up in the eyes of everybody in attendance. He also has one of the funniest laughs on the team, I don't know how to describe it but it makes you start laughing too, even if what was said was not funny.
Senior left-center back Andrew O'Malley (West Chester, Pa.) - "Andrew is more of an old-school kind of defender, very good at 1-v-1 defense and a strong tackler. He reads the game well and is great at communicating. He is an engineer and if you are ever in need of a random bit of information, just a random question like how fast is the earth spinning right now? then Andrew probably will know the answer. He would be a very valuable asset on a trivia team. And he listens to some `death metal' music, which is very different, but to each his own."
In addition to his goal of leading Notre Dame on a deep NCAA run in 2013, Van De Casteele also likely will emerge as a strong professional soccer prospect. He hopes to get invited to the 2014 MLS Combine and ultimately get drafted into the league. And he knows that the advice and lessons learned from the Notre Dame coaching staff will serve him well.
"Coach Clark's pedigree speaks for itself and of course Greg Dalby also has a big influence on me because we have so much in common, most of the things I have been through Greg went through as well during his Notre Dame career. He has my back and has my best interests at heart," says Van De Casteele.
"With all of the coaches (Clark, Dalby, associate head coach BJ Craig and volunteer assistant Vern Gingerich), I try to be a good listener and be coachable. You see that our team is very organized defensively, throughout all 11 players on the field, and I think that's a reflection of the coaching staff. Coach Clark's attention to detail is something that has rubbed off a lot on me, not only soccer but in everyday life." Van De Casteele offered an example of how attention to detail and the concept of full-team defending can be manifested on the field.
"Our mentality is one of focusing on doing the work now and doing the little things now, so you don't have to do the big tasks later," says the veteran defender. "We try to be a good re-pressing team whenever we lose the ball. If you lose the ball and make a five-yard sprint to go get it again, that could potentially save the whole team from running 60 yards back into our own box and defending for five minutes. When you think about it like that, there's no reason that you shouldn't sacrifice your own five-yard run for the betterment of the team."
Clark has no doubt that Van De Casteele's academic excellence has benefitted him in the athletic realm. "I think if you do hard work in the classroom, it spills over onto the soccer field and vice versa," says the Irish coach.
"Grant is a smart player on and off the field and he's made big strides throughout his career. He has improved his one-on-one defending, is much better in his positioning and just understands the game at the highest college level. He and Andrew are a great duo for us at center back. Andrew is a bit more aggressive and Grant more cerebral, but they are a tremendous tandem."
As a former standout center back in his own right, Dalby most appreciates Van De Casteele's field vision and consistency. "Grant is very perceptive to the opponent he is playing against and can `put out the fires' before they even occur," says Dalby. "He is very calculating, as to know when best to apply pressure and when to drop and provide cover. There's also something to be said for players like Grant who always give you a high standard of all-around play, game in and game out."
With what is sure to be a bittersweet end to his college career rapidly approaching, Van De Casteele's plans beyond the MLS could land him somewhere in the finance industry. He spent the 2013 summer interning with the Notre Dame investment office, specifically gaining insight into the endowment process.
"My internship was very detail oriented and centered around making sure that all micro decisions were made so that the finished product looked good and up to the standard that the organization would want," he says. "I got to meet a lot of people who are way smarter than I am, a very humbling experience. It reaffirmed my previous belief that a job in finance could be fun and not just being stuck at a desk all day."
Roughly 52 months after he first stepped onto the Notre Dame campus as a student-athlete, Van De Casteele will be departing with a strong appreciation for the benefits he has gained becoming part of the Notre Dame family.
"Coming to Notre Dame has given me the opportunity to be exposed to all different kinds of people, in this huge kind of melting pot," says the Capital One Academic All-America® candidate. "When I first came in as a freshman, in many ways I was stepping out of my comfort zone but that was an important part of the maturing process.
"There's a very strong sense of tradition and family at Notre Dame, and it's something I have really enjoyed being around. It's a feeling of pride that I can share universally with all Notre Dame graduates." And that sense of pride is not something that ever was foreign to this native of the Lone Star State.
"Notre Dame is like Texas, because people like to brag about it similar to how people from Texas like to talk about how awesome Texas is so Texas gets this bad rap because I guess people are jealous," concludes Van De Casteele.
"I think that Notre Dame shares a lot of those same qualities ... so when I leave here, I'll be able to brag about both Notre Dame and Texas, which will be a nice thing."