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Men’s Soccer: Team fights for NCAA berth

Laura Myers | Thursday, November 5, 2009

If Notre Dame wants to land in the NCAA Tournament, it needs to take a big leap through the Big East.

On paper, the Irish (10-7-1, 8-3 Big East) look good to go in the conference tournament — they finished second in the Big East Blue Division and defeated both No. 1 Big East seeds, Connecticut and Louisville, during the regular season.

But the Irish have learned the hard way that there are no sure things in the Big East, as they were favored in all three of their conference losses and were viewed as the underdog in some of their wins.

“Knowing the Big East, every team can beat us and we can beat every team,” Irish coach Bobby Clark said.

While Notre Dame’s current record is almost identical to what it was at this time last year, the team was a dead lock to make the NCAA Tournament in 2008. This year, it’s not so certain. The Irish were 36th in the final Ratings Percentage Index ranking of the season, and 32 teams are slotted for the tournament.

“[The conference tournament] is very important,” Clark said. “We need to get some wins. It’s quite different because the last couple years we’ve felt comfortable with our position at this time so it hasn’t been the same importance. But there’s no question this time it’s important.”

The 2009 season has been one of stops and starts — an encouraging victory followed by a demoralizing loss, and repeat.

Notre Dame began the season ranked at No. 10 and picked to win the Blue Division. It handily defeated No. 22 Michigan 5-0 in its first game. Now, the team is unranked and received just four points in the latest coaches’ poll.  

The conference tournament is single-elimination, so the Irish will need to put a winning streak together for just the third time this season.

“In the tournament you can’t go up and down,” Clark said. “If you go down you go out. There’s no question we have to put some runs together, that becomes very important. I like that sudden death element. It will certainly bring a much greater sense of urgency to the team.”

Clark laid out goals in the beginning of the season that he said are still reachable despite the setbacks the Irish have faced this season. Highest among those goals was to make his ninth straight NCAA Tournament, and possibly to go far.

“Nearly all the goals are still ahead of us,” Clark said. “You obviously want to win the Big East tournament. We’ve got to get into the NCAAs. I think if we get a couple of wins we’ll be in good shape for the NCAAs.”

The Irish lost to South Florida in the semifinals of the Big East tournament in 2008, and then fell to Northwestern in the second round of the NCAAs. Clark said he hopes to do better in each.

“That is the test of this squad, how much further we can take this,” he said. “And they’re a very capable squad. They’re very close to being a good team and the test is to get the consistency. This is the time when you want to get hot. It doesn’t matter what’s come before. Now we’ve got to start winning games and playing well.”

Notre Dame earned a first-round bye in the Big East and will begin play Sunday at home against the winner of Marquette and South Florida. The semifinals and finals will be held Nov. 13 and 15 at West Virginia.

Notre Dame hopes to exit Morgantown and head to the national tournament.
“There’s no silverware in the cabinet right now and we need some silverware. We want to get that trophy,” Clark said.