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Stingy defense has led the Irish all year long

Pat Leonard | Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Wisconsin-Milwaukee scored four times against Western Michigan to earn a shot at Notre Dame in the second round. It was silly of them.

The Panthers should have saved two of those goals for Wednesday.

With Big East Goaltender of the Year Chris Sawyer and arguably the strongest back four in the nation composed of Kevin Richards, Kevin Goldthwaite, Jack Stewart and sophomore Christopher High, the Irish are consistently limiting powerful offenses to few chances and even fewer goals.

At the rate the Irish are giving up goals, Wisconsin-Milwaukee is looking at a possible goose egg in its goals column in the Thursday box score.

It’s a distinct possibility, since it’s happened to 13 other teams this season.

Sawyer – only a junior – has a 0.65 goals against average on the season, making 66 saves including eight in three straight shutouts on the way to a Big East conference championship.

Not only have the Irish been shutting opponents out, they have given up just fourteen goals all season. Notre Dame’s total of 38 goals is not a high season total for any team, but the Irish still have twenty-four more tallies than their foes.

When Sawyer raised the goaltender of the year trophy above his head following a 2-0 victory over St. John’s, he knew it would have been more appropriate to have four sets of hands helping him support the award. They have supported each other all year anyway.

“The reason we’ve been able to shut teams out so well is simple,” Sawyer said. “We have the best back four in the country. My back line is unbelievable. And all of the credit really must go to them.”

Sawyer accepts none of the credit for his success, though saves like a diving grab in the first half on St. John’s Angel Rodriguez prove his value to the number three team in the nation.

“I see one or two shots a game, maybe one where I have to go to the ground,” Sawyer said. “Other than that, the defense just takes care of me. That save in the first half, I was just glad I could do that for them when they save me so much.”

The two men in the middle who ‘save’ Sawyer often are Stewart and High. The two juniors function as a two-headed monster, splitting the gut of opponents’ attacks. They win close battles at their feet and leaping battles in the air, particularly Stewart, who has a knack for getting his head on any ball within twenty feet above his shoulders.

High, a junior from Camarillo, Calif. saw action in four games during his sophomore season after red-shirting his freshman year. This season, however, with coach Bobby Clark shifting Luke Boughen from stopper to midfielder midway through the season, High has stepped up as a rock on defense. Stewart made the All-Big East first team this season.

“Our two central defenders are very solid,” Clark said. “They counter every aerial threat, especially against St. John’s, who is a fairly direct team. If you don’t handle that threat you’re in trouble, and these two boys have played superbly well.”

Words like Clark’s force teams to try and take the ball around the outside of the Notre Dame defense. The two Kevin’s are waiting patiently.

Richards and Goldthwaite man the outside defender spots, right and left, respectively. Richards is an all-Big East third team selection and Goldthwaite is a second-team member. Richards is a speedster who can catch any streaking forward or midfielder, while Goldthwaite relies on technique and poise to lock down on team’s strongest threats.

Most important about the two outside backs, however – especially in the Irish system – is the ability of both players to not only halt opponents’ rushes but to counter with attacks of their own. Both players make runs to the sideline often as Notre Dame switches the ball across the field.

Richards scored on such a run in the Big East Championship game against St. John’s, his first goal in three years. Clark later assessed the qualities Richards brings to the team.

“Kevin Richards doesn’t score a lot of goals, but he makes a lot of goals,” Clark said, referring to his playmaking skills.

Goldthwaite certainly does, as well.

The junior from Sacramento, Calif. started nine games his freshman season and has been invaluable particularly due to his set up ability. Goldthwaite can put a crossing ball, corner kick or throw in into the box on offense. Counting the Big East Tournament, he leads the team in assists with nine.

Richards, Goldthwaite and Stewart each have one goal, and the defense has often translated into offense this season for the Irish. Still, the Irish defense has been the reason the team needs only one or two great plays per game from attackers like Justin Detter, Devon Prescod and Greg Martin to secure a victory against anybody.

“We have good defenders and a good goalkeeper, but we also have a good team mentality,” Clark said. “We’ve lost fourteen goals, and take away our losses to Rutgers [5-2] and St. John’s [3-0] and we’ve lost just six.”

Offense wins games and defense wins championships, the cliché goes.

In Notre Dame’s case, defense is what wins. Period. It wins quarters, halves, games and conference tournaments. And, if the Irish build on their 13 shutouts and maintain the flawless play on defense, it could win them much more.