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MEN’S SOCCER: Up-and-down season still valuable for Irish

Joe Meixell | Wednesday, November 2, 2005

The Irish could never quite put this season on cruise control.

There was always another roadblock in the way, another detour or bottleneck. It was never a smooth ride for the 2005 Notre Dame team.

But that doesn’t matter now.

The regular season is over, and the Irish head into the Big East Tournament with a new appreciation of what they’re playing for.

Although the archives say this was a not-too-flashy 10-6-2 season, the final numbers don’t reflect the challenges the team faced and the hardships it overcame to enter the conference tournament with this kind of confidence.

After losing what coach Bobby Clark described as “three of the best players ever to play in this program” – goalie Chris Sawyer and defenders Kevin Goldthwaite and Jack Stewart – Notre Dame could never hit its full stride. They rebounded from losses quickly with decisive wins but dropped several close games and struggled to find the net too often.

But the games the Irish lost mean less than the players and leaders they found within themselves.

“Our class, there maybe were some more question marks about how the team was going to go,” Irish captain John Stephens said. “We lost some pretty strong personalities, so it’s been a learning process kind of for everyone.”

Sawyer was a two-time all-Big East pick while Goldthwaite and Stewart were MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalists.

In a way, losing the “stars” gave the players more of an equal footing on the team.

“I think it’s given a lot of guys kind of an ownership stake in how the team’s going to do and that led to maybe some rough times but hopefully that will pay off down the line,” Stephens said. “Even some of the younger guys are taking more of a leadership role than they have in the past, and it hasn’t been as dominated by the top guys, by the seniors.”

The season reflects a senior class forced to fill some impossibly big cleats and underclassmen who were thrust into the spotlight – shouldering a heavy load for the Irish.

This season didn’t look fancy. But it could pay dividends next year and in the future. Clark has taken the differences between last year’s Irish and this year’s edition in stride.

“Last year’s team was a team where pretty much everybody came back,” he said. “And next year’s team will be a team where pretty well everybody comes back.”

In 2006, this year’s underclassmen will be seasoned veterans. They’ll appreciate a season where they couldn’t take making the NCAAs for granted.

They also learned how to play with everyone on the roster, freshman to senior, dealing with injuries and off-the-field problems.

“Everyone’s had a stake in [the season],” Stephens said. “And hopefully it will pay off.”

But the season isn’t over. And although the regular season won’t be remembered as a dominating performance in one of the nation’s toughest conferences, history could still be made.

“They’re still in a very similar position where we’ve been previous years and maybe they can even take it further than previous years,” Clark said. “That’s still in their hands …

This is an opportunity for this team to take it to places this team has never been. It’s still all to play for.”

There might have been construction holdups along the way. But Notre Dame isn’t getting in an exit lane without a fight.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Kate Gales at kgales@nd.edu