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Men’s Soccer

Juniors prepare for round three

| Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Two years, ago six freshman walked into Alumni Stadium to begin their collegiate soccer careers at Notre Dame. Now juniors, those same six return confident, spirited and more than ready for round three.

Midfielders Patrick Hodan, Connor Klekota, Danny Lojek and Evan Panken, defender Michael Shipp and goalkeeper Brian Talcott represent Notre Dame’s junior class. From the field to the classroom to the dorm room, these six players are more than just teammates.

“We’re all very close — we’re like brothers and definitely family,” Lojek said.

Irish junior midfielder Evan Panken charges past a Wisconsin defender for a look at the goal, while fellow junior midfielder Connor Klekota backs him up in Notre Dame’s 5-1 victory over Wisconsin on Aug. 25.Michael Yu

Irish junior midfielder Evan Panken charges past a Wisconsin defender for a look at the goal, while fellow junior midfielder Connor Klekota backs him up in Notre Dame’s 5-1 victory over Wisconsin on Aug. 25.

This sense of family carries into their identity as a class. Irish coach Bobby Clark recognized the close group as one distinguished by its work ethic and commitment.

“The junior class is a group of very good young men,” Clark said. “They are tremendous students with very high GPAs, [and] they are very competitive on the field and in the classroom. They are very accountable and take care of business quietly but confidently. They’re really a terrific group.”

Like their coach, the boys themselves acknowledge their hard-work mentality as a unifying factor, especially on the field.

“I think us six take pride in being the hardest workers, so it’s something we strive to do, to be the hardest working out of the whole group because we all really want to get better,” Klekota said. “I’d definitely say on the field, our base is all six of us are really, really competitive.”

Competitively, the juniors’ careers began to develop last season as sophomores. Hodan, who earned All-ACC and Academic All-American honors, posted 11 goals, second only to former Irish forward Harrison Shipp’s 12, while ACC All-Academic team member Panken and Klekota tallied five and one scores, respectively. These three players and Lojek have stepped up this season to compose the deep and experienced sector of the Irish midfield.

“I think the midfield really has grown, and I think our class has definitely been a big part of that,” Hodan said. “We’ve really grown to learn the system, and we’ve all adapted well to playing everyone’s strengths and tendencies.”

The group has played to those strengths already this season. Klekota scored his second career goal in the team’s season-opening 2-1 victory against Marquette on Friday. He and Hodan accounted for the two goals in Notre Dame’s 2-2 exhibition draw with Bradley on Aug. 19, and Hodan and Panken contributed one goal each for the Irish in their 5-1 exhibition victory against Wisconsin on Aug. 25.

With their increased presence on the field, the juniors have taken on a greater responsibility as upperclassmen. No longer the freshmen members of the squad, these six now provide the support and motivation they hope their peers emulate, Klekota said.

“I think being team leaders [as juniors] is just the role of taking the younger guys and showing them the things that we were shown when we were in their spots,” Klekota said. “It doesn’t have to come through yelling or screaming, just through short, little conversations and always keeping them involved to make sure they keep growing as players.”

The Irish juniors pose for a prom-style photo. Midfielder Connor  Klekota said the group takes the same photo annually as a tradition.Photo courtesy of Danny Lojek

The Irish juniors pose for a prom-style photo. Midfielder Connor
Klekota said the group takes the same photo annually as a tradition.

The juniors’ own growth as individual players over the past two seasons contributed to Notre Dame’s success on the field, helping earn the program its first national title last year. The juniors agreed they are determined to repeat again this season, but they said it’s not all about their performance on the field — they must take their superstitions into account.

“We go to Boss’s [Coach Clark’s] house before the game for dinner, and as the year goes on, we get more and more superstitious about where each of us sits in the car,” Hodan said.

“We all drive together as a class and on the way, we listen to the same exact songs,” Lojek said. “On the way there, Connor sits shotgun, Patrick sits in the back and on the way back, Connor sits in the back.”

Lojek clarified that the back is actually the trunk of the car, and despite the ridiculousness, Hodan simply said it’s necessary for good luck.

Between the multiple crammed car rides, hours of practice, team dinners and even rooming together, one might think these six would grow sick of each other.

However, it is these bonding opportunities that have brought about many of the group’s favorite traditions and memories, they said.

“Every year, we take a picture of all six of us lined up prom-style, including one with the national championship trophy,” Klekota said. “We also dressed up as the Backstreet Boys — [from] the “Millennium” album — for Halloween.”

And, when it comes down to it, whether it’s sending a cross downfield or dressing up as a 90s boy band, Klekota spoke for the six: “It’s all about being family.”

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About Kit Loughran

My name is Kit Loughran, and I am a senior at the University of Notre Dame. I am a Marketing major and Journalism minor. I write for the Sports Department of The Observer and cover Men's Soccer, Lacrosse, and Golf.

Contact Kit