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IRISH INSIDER: Joseph Lapira is enjoying tranquil times and an explosive season

Eric Retter | Friday, October 13, 2006

Joseph Lapira is having a breakout season. That much is obvious.

The Notre Dame junior forward currently leads the NCAA with 18 goals and 39 points, and has been named the Big East offensive player of the week three times. He has also received five national honors, among them being named the College Soccer News national player of the week in each of the last two weeks – making him the first player to ever receive the honor in back-to-back weeks.

“He’s just an offensive machine, which is terrific,” Irish coach Bobby Clark said. “That’s why we play him as the first-up striker. He’s got tremendous ability in this area, and he’s got tremendous appetite to get into scoring position.”

The fact that Lapira is an offensive threat has come as no surprise to those familiar with the Irish program. As a sophomore last season, Lapira led the team in goals, scoring seven in 23 games.

No one could have predicted, however, that he would have exploded the way he has in recent weeks. In the last six games alone, Lapira has netted 11 goals, and he eclipsed last year’s season total in the fourth game of a stretch that began on Sept. 23 against Pittsburgh and saw him score two goals a game for five games in a row. That streak ended Wednesday, as Lapira managed only one goal in a 3-0 Irish win over Michigan State.

“I had no idea it was going to be like this,” Lapira said. “I had no idea it was going to be me who came out, [and] broke out. I’ve been the one who’s been in the right place at the right time.”

Lapira has downplayed the importance of his personal awards and achievements this year, and he said that he didn’t find out that he had the national lead in goals scored until he read about it in the newspaper.

“It’s more of just something to joke around with in the locker room,” Lapira said. “The only different thing for me is people back home that I haven’t talked to in a long while [have started] calling me or sending me e-mails and IMs saying ‘good job.'”

His recent hot streak has propelled No. 8 Notre Dame to a 10-3-2 record (6-2-0 in the Big East), and he is a major reason why the Irish offense, which struggled to consistently score goals early this season, is now ranked in the top-10 nationally for scoring offense. Since Lapira began his run, the Notre Dame offense has performed more like it expected to all season.

“We’ve really developed a confidence these last few games,” fellow forward Justin McGeeney said. “We don’t feel as anxious about scoring goals. We know they’re going to come.”

One of the major reasons for the spark in the Irish offense – and Lapira’s personal hot streak – has been Lapira’s non-stop motor.

“His attitude, his effort is just fantastic, and it always has been, since his freshman year,” Clark said. “He wears his heart on his sleeve.”

Despite the fact that he is neither a captain nor a particularly vocal member of the team, Lapira has come forward as a leader of the experienced Irish squad.

“The first thing a leader’s got to do is lead by example, and I think Joseph does that superbly well,” Clark said. “I think Joseph’s biggest asset is not what he says, but what he does.”

Lapira’s emergence as a leader perhaps applies more to life off the pitch than on it, and he credits Clark with encouraging his development over the summer.

“Whenever [Clark] talks about it, he puts it in perspective of my little brother looking to me as a role model, and just what I can do for him to be a leader,” Lapira said. “He’s coming into his junior year on his soccer team and he’s captain and he’s looking to me for advice.”

Lapira’s family has also influenced one of his major pre-game rituals. For each game, Lapira wears a crucifix that his mother gave him as a Confirmation present. The crucifix has brought him enough success on the pitch that he has begun lending it to his girlfriend Kerri Hanks, a forward on the Irish women’s soccer team, for her matches.

“She claims she can’t score unless she has my crucifix on,” he said.

The junior forward has also created a pre-game ritual with McGeeney, who has become his close friend over the past few years. Before each match, the two share a cup of tea with teammates at Clark’s house during pre-game meal and then write a saying – which they keep private – that has served as their motto for the past couple seasons on their chest.

“Our defenders used to write something, NGP, [which stood for}, No Goal Patrol, so we were like, ‘lets write something on our chest,'” Lapira said. “We were kind of being immature about it and just wrote something … We figured why not.”

‘You probably want to look at other schools’

Lapira and McGeeney actually became friends before the former had even enrolled at Notre Dame. While on his recruiting visit, McGeeney hosted Lapira, and the two became fast friends.

However, had it not been for Lapira’s own initiative, he may never have made that trip to South Bend. As a junior in high school, Lapira first came to Notre Dame to visit his cousin, and as part of his visit, e-mailed Clark about scheduling a meeting. While Clark happily agreed to meet with him, the initial encounter wasn’t particularly promising.

“I went in and met with him with my uncle and my dad, and he was like ‘you probably want to look at other schools, this is a pretty tough school to get into,'” Lapira said. “[However, Clark said] if you get a chance, come to our camp and send me an e-mail about what tournaments your team is playing in.”

Lapira ended up impressing Clark at the summer camp, and Clark decided to recruit Lapira after traveling that fall to see the striker’s club team play at a tournament in Iowa.

With Notre Dame as a suitor, the Lake Charles, La. native recalls that his college decision wasn’t too difficult.

“It wasn’t really like I had a whole bunch of schools knocking at my door,” he said. “It was Notre Dame or go to LSU to be with my friends.”

Once at Notre Dame, it took Lapira a while to adjust to the new environment.

“I had never seen snow before, so just getting used to playing in the cold weather was completely new to me,” he said. “I hated it.”

Lapira has spent much of the past two years maturing into who he is today, both as a person and as a player.

On the field, he wizened as a player, especially with regards to budgeting his energy.

“He used to always run himself to a standstill by doing too much work,” Clark said. “I think now he’s getting a lot smarter as a player [while] still working very hard.”

Lapira agrees with his coach’s analysis.

“As a freshman, I just got out there and ran around like a chicken with its head cut off, [and] I wasn’t a great soccer player by any means,” he said. “This year, I’ve really settled into things, [and] I’m really relaxed in games.

His greatest strides, however, have come in areas completely outside of soccer. Last year, Lapira’s home in Lake Charles was destroyed when a tree fell through it during Hurricane Rita. Lapira remembers how the events brought life into perspective for him.

“I saw my friend’s docks and piers that I had hung out in in the summer just months beforehand, [destroyed on the news, and] it was kind of surreal,” he said. “It can happen to anybody and it happened to me.”

While no one in his family was hurt, Lapira struggled to deal with what had happened for much of his sophomore year.

“Last year, I had never been so stressed in my life,” he said. “I tried not to let people know, I tried to hide my feelings about things last year. I got really stressed out during the season, I’d miss class because of it, work would pile up and at the end of the semester, I was just falling apart.”

Lapira also sees the a correlation between his mental state and his play last year, which he felt was not always up to his best.

“I had let it all build up, putting it down and not letting anyone know about it, and I think that just got to me in the end,” he said. “As a student, I struggled last year, and maybe that’s part of the reason I didn’t have such a good season.”

After what happened, Lapira has come out stronger from the experience. His family has begun a transition to Houston, and he is ready to move on.

“This year, I’m on top of things, if I get stressed out about something … I’ll go talk to coach, talk to my girlfriend, just get it out there.”

‘I’d like to play as long as I could’

As Lapira’s family slowly moves to Houston – with his father traveling for the majority of Notre Dame’s games – he has refocused his efforts on improving on the field. Over the summer, he worked extensively with senior midfielder Nate Norman to improve his dribbling skills.

“He’s one of the most unbelievable dribblers, and [I] tried to start dribbling a little more like him instead of myself,” he said.

Lapira is also having more fun with his environment this season. For the past few weeks, he has worn a mustache which he won’t shave while the team remains hot.

“I don’t really like shaving that much, and whenever I’d go to shave, I’d leave … something stupid for the day,” he said. “I kind of like it … and then the goal streak started. Since then, I’ve kind of been like, ‘well, might as well keep the mustache, we’ve got a good thing going.'”

After leaving school, the junior entrepreneurship major envisions a life of professional soccer.

“I’d like to play as long as I could, [though] I don’t know if that would be in MLS or overseas.”

However, Lapira doesn’t plan on pursuing that goal before graduation, and his primary focus at the moment is to help Notre Dame win a national championship.

“Right now I’ll just worry about being a [Notre Dame player],” he said.