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IRISH INSIDER: Stretch will prove where Irish rank

Joe Meixell | Friday, October 13, 2006

Eight days, three games and one giant reality check.

No. 8 Notre Dame will use its fall break to find out how well it matches up with the type of team it hopes to see in the NCAA tournament.

In their final three games of the regular season, the Irish will take on Providence at home on Saturday before traveling to play at No. 6 West Virginia on Wednesday and at Connecticut on Oct. 21. It just so happens that Providence, West Virginia and Connecticut are the three sides in direct competition with Notre Dame for the Big East’s Blue Division title.

Currently, West Virginia, with a conference record of 6-0-1, and Connecticut, with a record of 6-1-1, sit tied for first place atop the Blue Division with 19 points each. Notre Dame and Providence, who hold identical conference records of 6-2-0, both enter the weekend one point out of first place.

Despite the impressive records of Notre Dame’s next three opponents, Irish coach Bobby Clark will not be approaching the games any differently.

“We’re going to take it one game at a time,” Clark said. “You give every team full respect until you prove otherwise. We’re going to prepare for every game fully.”

Judging by Notre Dame’s recent performance, other teams should certainly be giving full respect to the Irish. Winners of six games in a row and unbeaten in their last seven, the Irish have outscored their opponents 18-2 throughout their current winning streak – averaging three goals a game while only conceding one-third of a goal per game.

The offense has been led by junior forward Joseph Lapira, who has scored an astounding 11 goals during the team’s six-game winning streak. Lapira, who first made headlines earlier this season with a four-goal effort against in-state rival Indiana, currently leads the nation with 18 goals on the season.

Just as important to Notre Dame’s recent success, however, has been the improvement in the Irish defense. The team’s .33 goals against average over the past six games is a drastic improvement from the 1.12 goals that they allowed on average over their first eight games.

During his six-year tenure at Notre Dame, Clark’s teams have been known for their inconsistent starts and strong finishes, a fact that Clark drew upon to explain his team’s recent success.

“Every year I’ve been here, we’ve finished strong like this,” said Clark after Notre Dame’s 4-1 win over Georgetown Oct. 7. “We always talk about how in September you have to fight for results, but the better sides start to put things together once you hit October and November.”

There’s no doubting that the Irish are a quality side, but the question of whether Notre Dame deserves to call itself one of the nation’s elite teams remains unanswered.

While the Irish have had what Clark calls many “measuring sticks” on their schedule this season, they have amassed a pedestrian 1-1-1 record against teams ranked in the Top 25 according to the NSCAA/adidas poll.

Furthermore, of their eight Big East games, only three – South Florida, Cincinnati and Seton Hall – have come against teams with winning overall records.

Enter West Virginia, Providence and Connecticut.

At No. 6 in the country, the Mountaineers provide Notre Dame with the ideal statement game, a win over a highly ranked team the week before post-season play begins. As a group, the Mountaineers, Friars and Huskies, with their combined conference record of 18-3-2, are the class of the Big East along with the Irish.

Solid results in its three upcoming games would validate Notre Dame as one of the top teams, if not the top, in the Big East.

A good showing would also help prove that the Irish are capable of improving upon their Sweet 16 appearance in last year’s NCAA tournament.

While questions linger about Notre Dame, the one sure thing is that we’ll have some answers one week from now.