Oct. 31, 2014
On a bitter cold night in overtime of a showdown between two NCAA top 10 soccer powers, a Michigan State player broke loose behind the University of Notre Dame's defense and drove toward the goal.
Instead of back-pedaling and bracing for a shot, Notre Dame goalkeeper Patrick Wall went into an offensive mode. Wall sprinted toward the Spartan attacker and dived face-first to break up the breakaway. Wall's bold move stole the scoring chance from Michigan State and kept the defending national champion Irish in line to walk off the field with a 1-1 tie in a bruising tune-up for the NCAA Tournament.
"Patrick definitely has guts," Notre Dame sophomore defender Brandon Aubrey said. "You have to put your body on the line when you play goalie. People are going to be running full speed at you, and you have to take the ball off of them. A lot of times, that means putting your body through theirs, and just taking the hit."
Wall's fearless play in the NCAA Tournament last season was critical to Notre Dame capturing the national championship. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound graduate student impressed Irish coach Bobby Clark.
"He's either fearless or he has a lack of imagination," joked Clark about Wall. "I'm not quite sure it's not lack of imagination. You don't know what could happen to you. We'll say fearless in Pat's case.
"He really is fearless," Clark said in seriousness. "He has good hands, good reflexes and is very quick. He reads the game well and he talks well. He controls the goal box very, very well. Pat's been fantastic for us. He really is a terrific goalkeeper. He's like a coach in the back. He talks very well. He has good feet. He distributes well. He's a real leader."
Wall said that turf burns, kicks and elbows are part of the job for a goalie.
"When you sign up to be a goalie, you know that guys are going to hit you, guys are going to knock you, but it's your job to keep the ball out of the goal," Wall said. "So whether guys are flying through you, you just have to get to it and save it.
"You have to develop fearlessness. Throughout my career, I've had guys who are massive guys fly through me, guys who look like linebackers. You just have to kind of take it, get up and move on."
Notre Dame's great Wall in front of the net has used his fearless play to his advantage.
"If you look at me, I don't look like most goalies," Wall said. "I'm 5-foot-11, and most of the guys I'm playing against are 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5. I wouldn't necessarily say that there's a model for goalies. If you want it bad enough, you have to push hard, and learn how to adapt to it and do what the big guys do, whether that's mental, using your feet, or instructing your teammates, you just have to do your job."
Wall had the maturity in high school to want to understand a scorer's mentality, as well as develop his physical skills. The native of Sugarland, Tex., played one season as a center back at Strake Jesuit College Prep. He gained insights into an offensive player's mindset, he gained foot skills and agility, and he gained All-America status as a center back.
"In high school, I wanted to work on my foot skills and be able to play out a little bit more when back passes come in when I'm in goal," Wall said. "That experience gives me an idea of how a scorer thinks. My job as a goalie is to be able to control the four guys in front of me. Actually stepping into their shoes for a season and being able to do that and see the problems that they face definitely helps my career. It also helped me deal with passbacks and being able to play with my feet. As a goalie, if you mess up with the ball at your feet, you're pretty much giving up a goal. You have to be perfect and do everything correctly.
"You find areas that you're not as strong at, and you find ways that you can fix it," Wall said of playing center back. "It got me to this level. Hopefully, it will get me to the next level."
Wall has logged every minute in goal over the last two seasons for the Irish and he boasts a 35-6-9 career record with 18 shutouts. The fifth-year senior embraces the challenge of playing goalie.
"Being a goalkeeper is very difficult," Wall said. "You always have to be zoned in. You can play an amazing game, and still let in a goal. You have to let that go. You have to deal with what the game gives you. Sometimes, that's two goals that you're not able to do something about, and then you have to save the ball at the top corner in able to win it. You have to be very tough in the head to be able to stick with the position and be able to push through a lot of the games that we have."
Wall's focus this season is getting the Irish back into the winner's circle. Notre Dame will bring a 9-4-3 record and a No. 5 national ranking into Saturday's regular-season finale at Pittsburgh. The Fighting Irish can lock up a second straight Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title with a good result against the Panthers.
"The run we had last year was more of a team thing," Wall said. "We had a bunch of guys who worked well together and everyone was invested in our team philosophy. It paid off. We're a very gritty team. Sometimes the other team would score first. Throughout the playoffs, we didn't have a whole lot of shutouts, but our defense was very strong and we locked it down when we needed to.
"To go through the season we had last year ... we had ups and downs. Not everything is perfect. We dropped games to Virginia, which were tough ones. You learn that you have to mature through the process. Some games will go your way, some won't. Regardless of how the game is going, you have to earn to push through and win the game."
Having Wall in goal gives the Irish defense opportunities to expand its range. Aubrey said that Wall's confidence and ability has allowed the Irish defenders to develop a strong trust that they can rely on Wall. A student of the game, Wall also gives the Irish a coach on the field.
"Patrick is a great leader," Aubrey said. "He's always in your ear, telling you where you need to be, telling you what you need to do, and what you need to do better. He's not afraid to get his point across. He'll yell at you, but it's not a bad thing. You try and do what he's telling you, because it's usually right."
Wall's presence in goal has helped the Irish achieve a No. 1 ranking this season, and has the Irish in position to claim a second consecutive national championship.
"A good goalkeeper is always very, very important," Clark said. "Any team that wins anything, there's always a good goalkeeper. You're not going to win something with a bad goalkeeper. It's as simple as that. Last year, he was huge. I hope he'll be huge again. If we're going to win it, he'll have to be."
-- Curt Rallo, special correspondent