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MEN’S SOCCER: Silently supportive

Joe Meixell | Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Justin Michaud has had a huge influence on this year’s Notre Dame men’s soccer team. His impact, however, has come mostly off the field.

Michaud entered the season battling junior Chris Cahill for the starting goalkeeper spot. After splitting time in the two exhibition games, Cahill got the nod in the regular season opener against Southern Methodist and has remained in net for the Irish ever since.

Michaud did not resent Cahill for winning the starting position, however. On the contrary, the senior, in his third year as the team’s backup goalie, did everything he could to help his teammate succeed.

“You’d think with goalkeepers fighting for the one spot, you wouldn’t be good friends. But in general we’ve always been good friends,” Michaud said. “I was good friends with [former Irish all-American keeper Chris] Sawyer before. I helped him out, and it’s been the same with Cahill. I like him. I want him to do well when he’s in there.”

Michaud’s efforts in this respect have not gone unnoticed by Cahill.

“He’s been a good role model for me and for the other keepers,” Cahill said. “He brings an intensity to training every day that we really need to keep us motivated. And he’s always offered advice and any help he could to me.”

Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clark has loved Michaud’s professional and unselfish approach to the season.

“He’s been a backup, but he’s been a terrific backup because he’s driven all three of the younger goalkeepers and he’s never once hung his head,” Clark said. “He’s the leader of these goalkeepers.”

Michaud’s story is an impressive, but not all that uncommon one. In fact, it seems to be part of a common trend among the seniors on the 2005 team.

This senior class is not nearly as heralded or as successful on the field as last season’s, which featured three MLS draft picks. Heading into the year, tri-captain John Stephens had played in the most games – 40 – of any Irish senior. Tony Megna, who was tied for the team lead with five tallies in 2004, was the only senior who had scored a goal entering the season.

This year, Stephens is the only senior who has recorded more than two points; the midfielder has logged five with three assists and one goal. Whether or not it is shown in the box scores, though, the 2005 senior class has played a tremendous and vital role throughout the year.

“This season, I think all the seniors – every single one of them – have set a huge example of how to handle themselves on and off the field,” junior tri-captain Greg Dalby said.

Clark agrees with Dalby’s assessment. The coach has been extremely impressed with the way the team’s six seniors each led the Irish in different ways.

“This is a class that just has a great attitude,” Clark said. “They’ve not always been up in the honors or the awards, but they’ve just had a fabulous attitude. They’ve come to practice every day with a smile on their face and they’ve worked extremely hard.”

Elected captain prior to the season, Stephens has never starred for the Irish, but he has contributed all four years due to his heady play and tremendous effort. The midfielder has concentrated this year on trying to influence the way the younger members of the team approach the game.

“Hopefully maybe our work ethic will rub off on some of the younger guys who maybe are more talented than we are,” Stephens said.

Rellas has served as captain alongside Stephens. After a stellar freshman campaign in which he started every game, Rellas’ career at Notre Dame has been derailed by a series of injuries. In 2003 and 2004, Rellas played in a total of just five games, and the captain has been sidelined for much of this season.

“It’s been very frustrating,” Rellas said. “But you know there’s more to being a captain than on the field, so I’m trying to do everything I can to help this team get prepared for the game on and off the field.”

Clark praised Rellas’ ability to lead effectively without seeing much playing time.

“Dales stuck with it and he still comes with a smile on his face,” the coach said. “He has played a part by his attitude and his example.”

It is not just the captains who have served as exemplary leaders, but the rest of the seniors as well. Jon Mark Thompson had only played in four games coming into 2005. Nonetheless, junior midfielder Nate Norman pointed to Thompson as a team-oriented player.

“What’s been so impressive about Jon Mark is that despite his lack of playing time, he’s always done really well in practice and he’s always one of the hardest workers on the team,” Norman said. “And when he does get his chance, he always does something productive when he gets on the field.”

Clark knows that he can sub Thompson into the game at midfield and not worry about a decrease in play, as evidenced by the senior’s performance Saturday against Seton Hall.

“He came in on Saturday in the second half and gave us 25 minutes and did a fabulous job,” Clark said.

Forward Megna, like many of his classmates, has been disappointed this season with his on-the-field production.

After leading the team in goals a year ago with five, the senior has failed to find the back of the net so far this year. Clark calls Megna “an unsung hero,” however, because of all the other things he does for the team. Dalby agrees with his coach’s evaluation.

“He’s not given enough credit I think for what he does,” Dalby said. “He has set an example. Even if your stats aren’t high, you can still really contribute to the team.”

Clark has a feeling, however, that Megna’s goal scoring drought will soon come to an end.

“Tony is still going to get a vital goal or two before the season is over,” Clark predicted. “He’s going to pull something out of the hat before it all wraps up.”

Last but certainly not least among the seniors is defender Ben Crouse. Crouse saw very little action in his first two seasons, but gained some experience early in 2004 when star defender Kevin Goldthwaite came down with an injury. Crouse has established himself as a starter in the back four and one of Notre Dame’s most reliable players.

“He has just stepped up,” Clark said. “Let’s be honest, he’s been one of our most influential players.”

Crouse hopes the young players on the team who do not play early in their careers will learn from his experiences and remain motivated.

“It shows that working hard throughout your four years, you can go out and become what you want,” Crouse said. “It shows that anybody can really just work hard and overcome some odds. It’s nice to finally play and do what you love.”

If the Irish succeed in the Big East Tournament this week and advance to the NCAA Tournament, it might not be because of numerous big plays from seniors on the field. However far the team advances in postseason play, though, the six members of the senior class will have played a huge roll – in their on-the-field contributions, in their attitude off the field and in their mentorship of their teammates.

“It’s been one of the most satisfying classes I’ve had in all my years of coaching college,” Clark said.