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Monaco: Squad needs to build off fast start (Sept. 6)

Mike Monaco | Wednesday, September 5, 2012

It’s a common cliché in sports: it’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.

This truism epitomized the 2011 season for the Irish. Notre Dame stormed out of the gates to a 5-1-2 start, highlighted by a hard-fought 1-0 win against then-No. 3 Louisville in its Big East opener. The squad was surging up the national polls as well, reaching No. 10 in the nation by the first of October. 

From there, however, the Irish proceeded to go 0-2-2. They did manage to rebound briefly with a much-needed three-game win streak toward the end of October, but a limping Irish squad missed out on the NCAA tournament after losing to Villanova in the first round of the Big East championship.

So while this year’s squad has gotten off to a similarly torrid start – the Irish are 3-0 for the first time since 2004 – this time it is about how the Irish begin.

The team is about to enter a grueling portion of its season. In its next nine games, Notre Dame will battle the likes of No. 6 Akron, No. 18 Louisville, No. 10 Indiana, No. 4 Connecticut and No. 13 Georgetown. Those games aren’t meaningless midseason matchups. The Irish can validate their nifty 3-0 start with some strong performances against some of the nation’s best. They need to show these first three games weren’t a fluke.

This isn’t 2011, when a disappointing end negated a promising beginning.

The Irish must build off their strong opening act in 2012, and follow it up with a few more steadying performances if they want to conclude with the impressive finale that was missing a year ago.

Also missing a year ago was an offense that scored consistently. In 10 of their 18 games, the Irish mustered just one or zero goals. So far through the first three tilts this season, that problem has been solved. The Irish scored five goals in two games this past weekend against San Diego State and Clemson, and the team blasted 18 shots against then-No. 21 Duke in the season-opening 1-0 win.

Senior forward Ryan Finley has three of the six Notre Dame goals to go along with one assist. He has worked in tandem thus far with junior forward Harry Shipp, who has one goal and three assists.

Fellow junior forwards Leon Brown and Alex Priede have started all three games on the frontline for the team. Brown, who has yet to find the back of the net, started 17 games in 2011 while Priede has already made his presence felt with a goal Sunday against Clemson.

If the Irish are to build off their first three wins, they will need their quartet of forwards, as well as a midfield unit led by senior captain Dillon Powers, to keep scoring.

Zero and one-goal outputs simply will not cut it. Last year, after playing 110 minutes of scoreless soccer, the Irish tied No. 1 Connecticut, even though Notre Dame fired 21 shots.

This year’s team will not be able to survive its backbreaking upcoming schedule with similar performances against a team like Akron or Connecticut. The Irish learned that the hard way in 2011.

It didn’t matter last year that the team had ripped off a 5-1-2 start. This year, the team’s 3-0 start will matter to how it finishes.

If Finley, Shipp and the rest of the Irish offense can maintain the form and chemistry that has resulted in six goals in three games, Notre Dame will be able to handle the bevy of ranked opponents littered throughout its calendar.

When the Irish conclude their difficult upcoming nine-game stretch, it’ll be time for the homestretch. And if they can prove that these first three games weren’t a fluke, how they finish will have everything to do with how they started.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.