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IRISH INSIDER: Irish ready to take on Big East’s best

Eric Retter | Friday, October 13, 2006

Four teams have six wins in Big East conference play. Three of them will play No. 8 Notre Dame in the next week and a half. The Irish (10-3-2, 6-2-0 Big East) – tied for third place in the Big East Blue division and the fourth team with six conference wins – will begin a tough stretch of games against the top three teams in the Blue Division Saturday against second-place Providence. The Irish will then travel Wednesday to Morgantown, W. Va. to face No. 6 West Virginia, the conference leader, before ending the regular season against Connecticut in Storrs, Conn.Notre Dame coach Bobby Clark said he is excited about the prospect of playing the league’s best to end the season.”I always judge a successful season by [seeing if a team is] going into the last game of the season with something positive to play for, and I think there’s no question that this year we’re doing that,” Clark said. “When you play your final game of the season, [you always hope] it’s a meaningful game, and that’s all you can ever ask for. You don’t ever want for your season to end early.”With a good showing Saturday and over fall break and with a little help, the Irish could potentially end up atop the Big East Blue Division heading into the conference tournament.Clark and Notre Dame, however, have not begun to think about anything but Saturday’s game.”All our focus is really on Providence and not looking beyond that,” Clark said. “I think the thing is to focus on just one game at a time. And I think that’s a key to winning all three games, to focus on each game one at a time as it comes up.”The Friars (10-3-0, 6-2-0 Big East) are coming off of a 2-1 upset of No. 14 Brown on Tuesday. They are led by freshman forward Jonathan Medcalf, who leads the team with six goals. Medcalf is currently sixth in the Big East in goals scored. Notre Dame is led by junior striker Joseph Lapira, who leads the nation with 18 goals. Clark is hopeful that Lapira won’t be bothered by a hamstring injury that kept him out of most of the first half of Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Michigan State.”I talked to his physical therapist, [and] he seems very good this morning,” Clark said. “Obviously they’re going to take another look at him this afternoon, but all early indications say he’s going to be 100 percent.”Notre Dame will also rely heavily on senior goalkeeper Chris Cahill, who has six shutouts and just nine goals against this season. In his last five games – all of which were Irish wins – Cahill has given up just one goal.After Saturday’s matchup against the Friars, Notre Dame will face its toughest conference opponent in West Virginia (11-1-2, 6-0-1 Big East). The Mountaineers are coming off 2-1 comeback win over American Wednesday, and are led by forward Jarrod Smith. Smith is second to Lapira in the conference in numerous offensive categories that include goals (12), points (27) and game-winning goals (4). Lapira has notched seven of the latter category this season.Notre Dame will finish its season in Storrs, Conn. against Connecticut (8-4-2, 6-1-1 Big East). Huskies forward O’Brian White, who was named co-Big East offensive player of the week along with Lapira last week after picking up two goals and an assist and leading his team to wins over Providence and Seton Hall. White leads the team with seven total goals.Clark acknowledged the capabilities of each of Notre Dame’s remaining three opponents.”[Our] team has grown, but I’m sure these teams have grown as well,” Clark said. “They’re good teams, and good teams continue to grow throughout the season … Anybody on our schedule can beat us if we are not properly focused.”Clark also said that the Irish should win all their games if they keep that focus.”This has been a very focused group, and it’s been very well led by the senior class,” he said. “The senior class has done a magnificent job just holding the discipline on and off the field.”Clark also anticipated that Notre Dame would carry one extra bit of help that would guide his team through the final stretch before the postseason.”Obviously, you need that little bit of Irish luck,” he said. “That never goes amiss.”

Note:uClark felt that injured midfielders Ian Etherington and Alex Yoshinaga were close to returning to action for the Irish. Etherington has not played since suffering a deep bone bruise against Pittsburgh Sept. 23, while Yoshinaga has missed much of the season after breaking his collarbone Aug. 27 against Creighton, the second game of the season.”They’re very close [to returning],” Clark said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed, [and] it would be nice to have both of these as extra options. I think there’s a good chance of [both of them returning before the Big East tournament, and] we’re hopeful that that can happen.”