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Sawyer is prepared to lead Irish

Kate Gales | Thursday, August 26, 2004

Year in and year out, Chris Sawyer has held the heart of the Irish soccer team in his hands.This season, the senior goalkeeper emerges with an All-American award under his belt and his eyes firmly fixed on leading the Irish to a national championship. “He came in here a very good goalkeeper,” coach Bobby Clark said. “He has the potential to leave here the best goalkeeper in the country.”As Sawyer has improved as a goalkeeper, his teammates have improved as well.”For about the past five or six years, the program has been on its way up,” Sawyer said. “Our class is just trying to make its mark.”To critics, the team already has. The National Soccer Coaches of America Association and adidas each ranked the Irish No. 9 in their preseason polls. Additionally, Sawyer and center defender Jack Stewart were named to the Hermann Trophy watch list. The award honors collegiate soccer’s most valuable player.”Personal awards don’t mean anything,” Sawyer said. “All that matters is having the national championship trophy.”Sawyer credits Clark for keeping team goals in sight and individual awards in perspective.”You tell me what the end-of-the-season polls are, and then I’ll be interested,” Clark said. “It’s always nice that people think reasonably highly of you, [but it’s a] tribute to last year’s team.”This year’s team has high expectations to match last year’s historically successful team. The defending Big East champions are picked to finish third in the conference, with top talents Justin Detter and Kevin Richards departing as Major League Soccer draft picks. A tough schedule includes top-ranked Indiana and conference foe St. John’s, currently at No. 2. Irish fans, however, can find solace in Sawyer and one of the nation’s top defenses.”We have the best defense in the country,” Sawyer said, specifying co-captains and fellow defenders Stewart and Kevin Goldthwaite. With sophomore Ryan Miller filling out the back line, Sawyer has reason to be confident. In Monday’s preseason contest with Northwestern, they forced Sawyer to make only three saves – one of which was a heart-stopping deflection in the lower corner.This performance also gives confidence to Clark, who is entering his fourth year with the men’s soccer program.”[Sawyer, Stewart and Goldthwaite] are three of the best collegiate players in the country,” Clark said. “They’re all great. They all sought their roles out. They all have tremendous respect for one another. They all have different strengths … the key thing is that they work very well together.”The senior standouts debuted with the team in the same season as Clark, who came from a head-coaching job at Stanford. When Clark arrived that January, Sawyer had already committed, citing “the potential of the program” and the players on the team as major reasons for choosing Notre Dame in the recruiting process.”If I had been recruiting a goalkeeper [at Stanford], I would have been recruiting Chris Sawyer,” Clark said, recalling his enthusiasm for working with the young keeper. Day-to-day, Sawyer works with goalie coach Brian Wiese. “Coach Wiese has worked tremendously with him,” Clark said. “[Wiese] did a fabulous job … It’s not hard to work with Chris because he’s a very motivated, dedicated young man and he works very hard at getting better.”Sawyer also attributes his newly-honed skills to Wiese’s commitment. “I’ve improved dramatically since I came here,” Sawyer said. He filled in as goalkeeper at age 12 after starting his soccer career on the front line. “I fell into something that I loved,” he recalled.Sawyer has made himself into one of the most feared goalkeepers in the nation, with hard work, natural talent and the perseverance of his coaches.”It makes for a success story,” Clark said. “[Sawyer] came in and he was a good goalkeeper when he came in, but a goalkeeper needs a personality … He needs to have presence, and Chris has developed that over the years.”As Sawyer enters his final year of eligibility, he hopes the potential will be realized after last year’s trip to the Sweet 16.”Our own expectations are certainly the Final Four and maybe the national championship,” he said. With Sawyer anchoring an outstanding defense on a talented team, the statement isn’t difficult to believe.