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ND Men’s Soccer: Irish defender Grant Van De Casteele rises above his peers

Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Grant Van De Casteele has fought through persistent injury and uncertainty in his career, but now he does all his fighting on – or more accurately above – the field.

At 6 feet 2 inches, the junior defender has been nicknamed “Too Tall” by his teammates, a reference to a recent GEICO commercial. The nickname reflects Van De Casteele’s style of play, which relies on his ability to stand out in – or jump out of – a crowd.

“I’d like to think of myself as a center back with a better touch and that I’m good with the ball at my feet,” Van De Casteele said. “But [Irish] coach [Bobby Clark] always, always gives me a hard time when I miss a header or don’t win a header, I guess because he thinks I’m so tall there’s no reason I shouldn’t win every header.

“It’s definitely an important aspect for me as a center back to win the aerial battle with forwards, especially on set pieces.”

The junior defender, roughly four months removed from knee surgery, is a key part of the stalwart Irish defense that has allowed only two goals during No. 17 Notre Dame’s current three game winning streak. After starting every game of the 2010 campaign for the Irish (4-1-2) on an ailing knee, Van De Casteele is now on the mend after a busy offseason.

“Last year I had tendinitis in my knee,” Van De Casteele said. “I had a couple procedures done on it before, which [the doctors] had hoped would fix it but they didn’t so then they had to operate on it in April. I missed pretty much the entire spring season.”

At the time of that April surgery, it was unclear when Van De Casteele might be ready to retake the field with the Irish. With limited time before the Aug. 27 opener, Van De Casteele underwent intensive rehab to try to expedite the recovery process.

“It was pretty slow and steady, slow and agonizing, really,” he said. “When I had the surgery, they didn’t know if I was going to be ready for the start of the season or if I would even be playing in the season. I was getting treatment at least once a day pretty much the whole summer and I was able to recover pretty quickly.”

Although he said he is not yet back at full strength, Van De Casteele is content to be able to take the field.

“I’m still getting my strength back and still working on my endurance, but I’m definitely in a good position right now, possibly better than I was at this point last year,” he said.

Van De Casteele has played all 685 minutes of Notre Dame’s season thus far, as has senior defender Aaron Maund, who combines with Van De Casteele to make up the core of the Irish defense.

“Me and Aaron have a pretty good playing relationship,” Van De Casteele said. “I think we work well together and our skills kind of complement each other.”

Van De Casteele was recently named the Big East Defensive Player of the Week after helping the Irish limit their opponents to only one goal in 181 minutes of weekend play against Michigan (2-6-1) and Michigan State (1-5-1).

A student in the Mendoza College of Business and a member of the Dean’s List, Van De Casteele has also been named a Big East Academic All-Star in each of his first two seasons.

Moving forward, Van De Casteele will attempt to continue his domination of the air space around the goal, but will do so with the support of a group called the “Dancing Gumbies,” a collection of roommates and friends who attend the soccer games dressed as the green cartoon character.

“They made their debut on Friday, and since then we are 2-0,” Van De Casteele said. “They’re behind the goal just kind of dancing around, joking, having a good time. There are five of them right now and there’s a Pokey on the way.”

“Pokey,” Gumby’s sidekick in the cartoon, may make an appearance when the Irish host Louisville Saturday at 7 p.m.