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Men’s Soccer: Team readies for Big East

Laura Myers | Thursday, September 17, 2009

Notre Dame begins its conference schedule this weekend in hopes of winning its third straight Big East Blue Division title. But there will be a lot of teams standing in the way of the Irish.

“The Big East is one of the best conferences in the country,” coach Bobby Clark said. “To win it three years in a row would be pretty special. It’s a real feather in the cap for the guys.”

The No. 20 Irish (2-2-1) currently sit in fourth of the eight teams in the Blue Division of the conference, though the standings will certainly be shaken up once conference play begins. The other eight Big East teams comprise the Red Division, which is led by No. 11 South Florida (4-0), whom the Irish will play Sunday after a Friday game at DePaul.

Notre Dame has already played one Big East foe in No. 5 St. John’s, losing 2-0 at the adidas/IU Credit Union Classic on Sept. 6. That game did not count as a conference match.

The conference lineup consists of all seven teams in the Blue Division as well as four from the Red. Currently, due to a few rocky starts, only four Big East teams are ranked: Notre Dame, St. John’s, South Florida and No. 22 Louisville.

“I know the ones we play this weekend are doing well,” Clark said. “They’ll be two very hard road games.”

The Irish will be missing three important defensive players as the team starts conference play. Senior midfielder Cory Rellas suffered a knee injury in the first game of the season, and sophomore defender Aaron Maund and freshman midfielder Dillon Powers will be playing at the under-20 World Cup in Egypt for most of the regular season.

“We’ve lost three key players, but this is an opportunity for guys to step up,” Clark said. “It’s a challenge to the squad and the players, but that’s why you have a full squad. We have to overcome some big losses, but I think we’ve got a good shot. ”

Maund and Powers will be back at the very latest for Notre Dame’s Oct. 21 game against Georgetown, which should be an important game for the Blue Division standings. The Hoyas (3-1-1) currently sit in second place behind Providence (3-1) and have made an early statement with two players earning player of the week honors Monday.

While the regular season title is a big accomplishment, Clark pointed out that the Big East tournament is even more important. The winner of the tournament, which will be held Nov. 4-15 on campus sites and then at West Virginia, receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship tournament.

“That’s why the schedule we play is so important,” Clark said. “We have very strong out of conference games to build our RPI [ratings percentage index] because our end of season aim is the NCAAs. If we do well in the conference and qualify for the tourney and beyond, we can also go to the NCAAs.

“Right now, we’re taking it one stage at a time.”

Clark said traveling is an especially difficult part of the conference schedule. The squad usually plays a Friday game and a Sunday game, alternating a weekend at home and a weekend at two different locations, which vary quite a bit as Big East schools range from Chicago to Florida and everywhere in between.

“That’s one of the hard things of being a Midwest school in the Big East,” Clark said. “You travel a lot. I think the DePaul-South Florida trip is the worst. Plus it would have been nice to go to Florida later in the year.”

As the Irish start their conference play, they will keep their main goal in mind.

“We want to win the league,” Clark said. “It’s our first big challenge of the season … we’ve got a terrific team, and they’re certainly motivated.”