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Irish breaking new ground on ascent

Greg Arbogast | Friday, May 18, 2007

Heading into the 2006 season, the Notre Dame posters described the Irish program as “ascendant.”

After the program secured its NCAA quarterfinal berth as well as its first Hermann Trophy winner in 2006, it’s safe to say that Notre Dame is on the rise.

The Irish finished the regular season with a record of 15-6-2. Earning a first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame went on to defeat Illinois-Chicago 1-0 at home in its first game before knocking off defending champion Maryland 1-0 in overtime in the round of 16.

It marked the second consecutive year that the Irish ousted the reigning national champions out of the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame bounced defending champion Indiana in 2005.

The win over the Terrapins also ended a streak of three consecutive Sweet 16 exits for coach Bobby Clark and his squad, who went on to face 4th-seeded Virginia in the program’s first ever quarterfinal berth.

Against the Cavaliers, Notre Dame twice cut two-goal deficits in half, but the Irish were unable to find the elusive tying goal. The eventually fell to Virginia 3-2. While Clark called 2006 a “very good season,” he said his team stopped short of its potential.

“I would like to have that game over again,” Clark said, referring to the Virginia game. “We didn’t quite play to our potential in that game, and it was a game where you came off the field saying I wish we could play them again tomorrow. I felt the season stopped a little too short because I felt we had a team that was good enough to go to a Final Four.”

While the Irish were stopped one game short of the semifinals, their season included many memorable moments, such as an instant classic against cross-state rival Indiana. Notre Dame defeated the Hoosiers 5-4 in overtime Sept. 3 in the Adidas/IU Credit Union Classic. The Irish also ran off an eight-game unbeaten streak from Sep. 20 to Oct. 18 in which they outscored their opponents by a combined total of 21-2.

Clark pointed to senior leadership as the main reason for his team’s success.

“[Senior co-captains] Greg Dalby and Dale Rellas provided fantastic leadership,” Clark said. “Any team that’s going to be successful needs good leadership, and the whole senior class was terrific. It also wasn’t bad having the top scorer in the country, but the leadership was the catalyst to the season.”

By top scorer, Clark was referring to junior forward Joseph Lapira, who led the nation in both goals (22) and points (50). Those statistics helped Lapira win the program’s first ever Hermann Trophy – the collegiate soccer player of the year award. Even more impressively, Lapira did it all playing with a torn left meniscus, which he injured in the first game of the season against UAB.

“It was a special year,” Clark said.”[Lapira] has a terrific appetite to shoot, and that’s a great attribute for a striker. He loves to shoot and he loves to go to goal, but he was also a pretty good team player this year as well. He had a great energy and great work ethic all season.”

After its impressive 2006 campaign, Notre Dame hopes it will continue ascending to the top of the collegiate soccer world. Despite losing Dalby and Rellas, Notre Dame will return seven starters, including Lapira, in 2007 to go along with a bevy of younger talent.

“If you’re a good program, you’re going to graduate some good players,” Clark said. “If you’re going to continue to be a good program new good players are going to have to step up and fill the void, and I think we have a group of young players who are more than ready to come in and pick up where we left off.”