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Leaving a mark

Justin Schuver | Tuesday, November 25, 2003

When the Notre Dame seniors take the field Wednesday against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the second round of the NCAA tournament, it could possibly be the last time for those seven players to step onto Alumni Field and play a soccer game.

Hopefully it won’t be, but even if it is, this year’s seniors have really put a special touch on not only the 2003 Irish soccer season but also their entire careers. When the six scholarship seniors arrived on the South Bend campus for the first time in 2000, they each agreed that they had one goal for their time at Notre Dame.

“I think we came here with the mission to make this a soccer school,” team captain Greg Martin said. “In a couple of weeks we’ll have left this school and I think I can say we have probably accomplished that goal.

Forwards Devon Prescod and Justin Detter, midfielders Filippo Chillemi, Martin and Chad Riley and defender Kevin Richards have done their part over their four years to help put Notre Dame soccer on the national map. Walk-on midfielder Roger Klauer, from Granger, Ind., has helped the six scholarship players achieve that goal as well.

“I would like to think it’s a soccer school at this point,” Martin said.

It’s a strange possibility to consider – most people who hear the name Notre Dame think of football and not the European variety most call soccer. However, Martin has a good point and the numbers are there to back him up.

In 2000, the Irish averaged 810 spectators at their home games at Alumni Field. This year, Notre Dame has averaged an impressive 1,154 fans per game, a mark that currently places them 14th nationally in attendance.

Notre Dame’s 1-0 overtime victory over Indiana was attended by 2,131 fans, the largest crowd this season and one of the largest in the school’s history.

With the help of seasoned coach Bobby Clark, who arrived in 2001 with an impressive resume that included an NCAA runner-up while at Stanford, Martin and the other seniors have helped take Notre Dame soccer to a whole new level.

This year is the first year that the Irish have received a first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament as one of the top 16 seeds. They are the No. 5 seed and just missed having home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

This is also the first year since 1996 that the Irish have won the Big East conference championship, and the first under Clark’s leadership. Like any other coach, Clark has expected a lot out of his senior class.

“They look for us for leadership, both on and off the field,” Riley said. “I think a lot of the guys – Greg, Devon, and Justin – have probably scored about 80 percent of the goals this year, so that’s another important area we’ve had to contribute in.

“We’ve also been asked to just kind of show a good example to the younger kids so they can see how to improve their play.”

Prescod and Detter have indeed paced the Irish offense most of the way through the season, with each forward collecting 11 goals this year. Martin, the next closest, has three. The offensive flurry for the talented forwards has been a result of Clark’s decision to make the two his top attacking tandem this season.

“It’s a fairly new chemistry for us, you might say,” Detter said. “We’ve always played together, just not always on top. I’d say now that we’ve played about 20 games or something like that, that we’ve definitely formed a good chemistry, and we feel like we’re playing well at the right time.

“Of course, what we do comes from the rest of these guys, sending in good crosses and nice [passes] into the box.”

Prescod collected four assists this season to go along with his four goals – most of those assists to Detter – and was the team’s leading scorer during the regular season with 26 points. He too credits being teammates so long with his forward partner as a reason for the duo’s offensive success this year.

“I think we’ve definitely gotten to know each other better over the past three years,” Prescod said. “Playing together up front has actually allowed us to spend even more time together because we’ve been rooming together on road trips and things like that.

“I’d say we’re definitely at a point now where we know each other the best we ever have through these four years.”

While Prescod and Detter have been the cornerstones of the Irish offense, Richards has been a consistent veteran presence for Notre Dame’s impressive defense, which gave up only 14 goals in 21 regular season games.

While the senior defender is known more for keeping the ball out of the net, he had perhaps one of the biggest goals of the year when he scored the game-winning goal in Notre Dame’s 2-0 victory over St. John’s in the finals of the Big East championship.

“I’d say my role is more in just getting some of the younger guys to understand coach Clark’s system and way of playing,” Richards said. “Those guys have really stepped up quick and have allowed me to go forward a little and not always have to play in the back, which has helped me to not have such a big responsibility as the only senior defenseman.”

These seniors realize that their success in the regular season is just ancient history now as they head into the NCAA tournament with a very good chance to help bring Notre Dame something that the Irish have never achieved – a national championship in men’s soccer.

Regardless of the final outcome of this year’s tournament, it will still be difficult for these seven to leave. They certainly already have a lot to be proud of.

“I think that as far as on the field we’ve really come in and done what we said we’ve wanted to do, and that’s improve every year as a team,” Chillemi said. “And I think that off the field we’ve become a very tight group and I can honestly say that these guys have become my best friends.

“It’s going to very tough to leave.”

As for the date of these seniors’ final game, that is completely up to how they perform in the tournament. You can bet they would like to stay on the field as long as they possibly can.

“Back in August of 2000, and especially in August 2003, we really set our sights on the national championship,” Martin said. “Can this team win a national championship? I think a better answer to that is that this team can accomplish whatever we set our minds to, and I think that’s the message we want to leave as a legacy to the next Notre Dame teams.

“We want to show that first, Notre Dame can play soccer, and second, that if a group of guys commit to a goal, they can achieve whatever they want.

“This year, we want to win a national championship.”