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MEN’S SOCCER: Irish defenders have big shoes to fill

Kevin Brennan | Thursday, August 18, 2005

Dale Rellas has some big shoes to fill. The senior captain defender of the Notre Dame men’s soccer team will be counted on to anchor an Irish defense that lost three of the nation’s top players to graduation.Defense was the backbone of the Notre Dame team in 2004. The Irish had a first team All-American goalkeeper in Chris Sawyer, who the Kansas City Wizards selected with the 24th overall pick in January’s MLS draft. Defenders Jack Stewart and Kevin Goldthwaite also had outstanding years for the Irish in 2004 and were drafted 10th and 17th overall, respectively. The three standouts helped Notre Dame lead the country last season with a 0.45 goals against average.Notre Dame now faces the monumental task of replacing the nation’s top defense. Rellas, who missed the last two seasons with injuries after a stellar freshman campaign, embraces that responsibility.”That’s the big challenge for me – coming back and trying to get some of these younger guys in the back to get organized and play well for the team,” Rellas said.Coach Bobby Clark must also find a competent successor to Sawyer in goal. The Irish return two upperclassmen goalkeepers with little experience in senior Justin Michaud and junior Chris Cahill. Michaud played in three matches last year as Sawyer’s backup, while Cahill has not seen any game action. The Irish also bring in Andrew Quinn and Luke Seibolt, two freshman keepers.Clark insists competition in net is wide open.”That decision hasn’t been made yet,” Clark said. “We’ll give a couple of the goalkeepers a look on Monday.”Notre Dame opens the season on Monday, hosting eighth ranked New Mexico in an exhibition game at Alumni Field. The good news for Clark is the Irish return a great deal of offensive firepower. Six of the top seven scorers from last season are back. Forwards Justin McGeeney and Tony Megna led the team with five goals each last season.Captains John Stephens and Greg Dalby and sophomore Kurt Martin lead an experienced group of midfielders, with juniors Ian Etherington and Nate Norman further augmenting the Irish offensive charge.In 2004, these players helped the Irish to one of the best regular seasons in program history. The Irish captured the regular season Big East title, a feat Clark was quite proud of.”To win the Big East was definitely the best thing any of the teams have done to date because it is such a difficult league,” Clark said.After battling Seton Hall to a standstill in the Big East Tournament championship game, the Irish lost on penalty kicks. The team received the fifth seed in the NCAA tournament, the highest seed in program history. After a first round bye, though, Ohio State upset Notre Dame 2-1, ending the Irish season earlier than expected. “That was a really tough loss to swallow,” Dalby said. “We had a great year and finished off strong in the regular season. We had high expectations going into the tournament.”The Irish will look to make up for last year’s disappointing finish in 2005. The team enters the year ranked No. 16 in the NCSAA preseason poll.Things do not get any easier for Notre Dame after Monday’s match with New Mexico. The Irish face steep out of conference competition to begin the 2005 campaign, with three of Notre Dame’s first four opponents ranked in the preseason top 25.”This is the toughest schedule we’ve had on paper,” Clark said. “We feel the tougher schedule you get, it doesn’t ensure wins. But it ensures preparation if you are fortunate enough to get to the NCAA’s, we’ll have played top quality teams.”That is the bottom line for the Irish. Regular season games are important, but the team is concentrating on equaling those successes in the 2005 postseason.”It’s pretty simple,” Rellas said. “We want to win the Big East league and then we got the Big East tournament.”Then we get into the NCAA tournament and that’s when we’ve gotta go. We’ve gotta get to [the NCAA championship site in North] Carolina and win a national championship.”