Dec. 2, 2014
It was far too soon for University of Notre Dame men's soccer coach Bobby Clark to be talking about the legacy of his seniors, but that was the burden the veteran Fighting Irish coach shouldered as a chilly mist fell on the Alumni Stadium turf Sunday night.
Defending national champion Notre Dame fell short in its quest for a second consecutive NCAA Division I crown, as Virginia knocked off the No. 1 seed Irish 1-0 in the round of 16.
"You've got the one national championship, you've got two ACC titles, you've also got a Big East title," Clark said. "These seniors can walk away and hold their heads up pretty high, but I know they're all very disappointed tonight."
Atlantic Coast Conference rival Virginia took its lead in the 82nd minute and then survived a furious Irish finish. Notre Dame's season ended with a 12-5-4 record.
"I think every single one of these seniors can leave pretty proud," Notre Dame senior Nick Besler said about the end of a special chapter in Notre Dame athletics. "We brought this University its first national championship in the men's soccer program. The last three years, we've been ranked No. 1. That's pretty remarkable."
Clark agreed the seniors made their mark in a proud program.
"I thought they captained a very good ship," Clark said of his seniors. "There were a lot of little standards they set. I've been lucky. If I look through all of my years here at Notre Dame, you get great kids and they handle themselves very well. This group has been exemplary in everything they've done."
For Clark, the pain of the third-round exit from the NCAA Championship will surface at around 3:30 every afternoon for the next two weeks.
"The highlight of my day, and of the other coaches, is just coming to coach this team every day," Clark said. "They're a fun group to work with. That's the biggest disappointment for me. The loss has taken two weeks of coaching away from me. I won't be able to go out and see the boys."
What makes the relationship between Clark and his players special is that they are perfect fits for Notre Dame. Clark recruits high-character students. The measure of the student Clark recruits is whether or not this is a person Clark wants to spend four years with at Notre Dame.
"There have been many cases where there have been good players we passed on, because we didn't think they were good fits for Notre Dame," Clark said. "Notre Dame doesn't fit everyone. You have to be a good student. You have to be a good athlete. You also have to be a good person."
Notre Dame's seniors will gain an assist for success the Irish enjoy next season. The Irish seniors passed along their leadership skills to the upcoming leaders for next season.
"I think the most important thing I learned from this year's seniors was to communicate with the people around you, to help put them in the best position, and always talk so they know what you're thinking," sophomore Brandon Aubrey said. "You can't be on the same page if you're not communicating what you're thinking. I think this team communicated really well. The leaders on this team, Nick Besler, Andrew O'Malley, Patrick Wall, Luke Mishu, they all really helped me with my positioning. The biggest thing I can take away from this team to do next year is communicate."
Aubrey and freshmen Jon Gallagher and Jeffrey Farina were among the young players who played key roles for the Irish this season. They will be counted on as the Irish seek to continue to carve out a place among college soccer's elite.
"I think there's good leadership in the rising senior class," Aubrey said. "Obviously, with Patrick Hodan leading from the front, he always has a vision of what the team needs to do. Evan Panken is more of a vocal leader. If guys are slacking off, he won't allow it.
"We're going to work our tails off to make sure this doesn't happen again. We all feel we should have gotten to the Final Four. That's definitely going to give us motivation, feeling that we should have done a lot better this year."
As for Clark, he and the Irish will take some time off and then start getting ready for a run at another championship in 2015.
"We'll have a good look in the spring," Clark said of next season. "It's really too early to think about who goes where. We'll decompress for a little while and then we'll get started again in January. There are some very good players in the freshman group. The freshman and sophomore classes are very talented, as is the junior class. It's exciting to think about."
-- Curt Rallo, special correspondent