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Regular season success puts Irish in great spot

Pat Leonard | Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The Irish are in a good spot, and for three rounds at least, they can stay there.

The men’s soccer team did not even appear on the NSCAA Preseason Top 25 rankings at the start of this year. But like coach Bobby Clark always says, the last season doesn’t matter. Sure enough, they jumped to fourth in the nation for the Sept. 1 rankings, and Notre Dame never really left the national spotlight.

Sparked by a surge of shutouts in the Big East tournament that culminated in a 2-0 championship victory over St. John’s in the final, the men’s soccer team now carries momentum into a home match against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the NCAA tournament round of 32.

Why are the Irish in the perfect position to make a run at a national title?

Well, being ranked fifth overall and getting a bye in the first round doesn’t hurt. Home field advantage on Wednesday doesn’t hurt either. In fact, Notre Dame was just one spot away from getting home field advantage all through the playoffs. Now, they must be the higher seed in a match to play at Alumni Field.

This will work in the favor of the Irish, who are 9-2-1 at home counting a postseason victory over Connecticut.

Wisconsin-Milwaukee is already traveling, and if the Irish can get by the Panthers safely, they will face the winner of St. Peter’s vs. Michigan.

That game’s winner would also have to travel to South Bend, as St. Peter’s is unranked and the Wolverines sit at No. 12 in the brackets.

Picture Notre Dame in the elite eight. First of all, that would automatically mean the Irish had advanced further than any men’s soccer team in the history of the program. Furthermore, that would also mean Bobby Clark and the boys could have home field advantage for a third straight tournament game, as long as No. 4 seed North Carolina loses one of its next two games.

The Tar Heels are in a similarly comfortable spot, and a loss to Coastal Carolina this Wednesday is not likely for the Atlantic Coast Conference power. Still, don’t discount No. 13 Loyola Marymount from a possible upset of North Carolina if they can get by Santa Clara, a winner in penalty kicks over Southern Methodist.

Notre Dame has reached the five seed in the tournament due to a tough schedule, both out of conference and within. While the ACC boasts three of the top four seeds – Maryland, Wake Forest and North Carolina – the Big East is clearly a top conference that has served the Irish especially well in determining their fate for the tournament.

Six teams, including Notre Dame, made the cut to the national tournament. Five remain, with Seton Hall losing to Virginia in the first round.

St. John’s, the six seed who also received a bye in the first round, will take on the University of Connecticut, a 3-0 first round winner of Rhode Island.

Virginia Tech has a date with Virginia Commonwealth after disposing of Clemson in penalty kicks, and Rutgers advanced past Lafayette to take on Akron.

Strength of schedule definitely helps, and giving up a stingy 15 goals all season almost makes the Notre Dame defense the aggressor.

Analysts like ESPN’s Tommy Smith have said this tournament does not matter if top-seed UCLA plays its best soccer, because they can play an unbeatable style.

Still, the Irish cannot be concerned with such matters right now. They have a game to take care of and then hopefully another.

The team played its way to where it stands, and they now have a golden opportunity to take advantage of home field, momentum and a combination of coach, leadership and chemistry that could take this Irish team soaring even further into the record books.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Pat Leonard at [email protected]