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Irish capture conference

Matt Puglisi | Tuesday, October 26, 2004

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.They also win championships.Faced with a make-or-break fall break road trip against three tough conference opponents, the No. 5 Irish (12-2-2, 7-1-1 in the Big East) played to a draw with No. 10 St. John’s before edging both No. 17 Seton Hall and Rutgers to claim the regular season conference crown for the first time since Notre Dame began Big East play in 1995.”Every team has to make its own little bit of history, and this team has done that,” coach Bobby Clark said. “Having said that, you’ve also got to give praise to the players that have gone before – a lot of stuff gets passed down. Every team starts to add to Notre Dame soccer tradition.”

Notre Dame 1, St. John’s 1All good things must come to an end.The Irish saw their six-game winning and shutout streaks snapped Oct. 16 when a second-half St. John’s (9-3-4, 6-1-3) tally knotted the contest. The Irish battled the Red Storm to a 1-1 tie to kick off their three-game fall break road trip.”It was a pretty tough, tight, hard game – not a lot in it statistically,” Clark said. “I think it was very close.”While the equalizer snapped Irish goalkeeper Chris Sawyer’s 623-minute scoreless streak, the tie with conference rival St. John’s kept Notre Dame atop the Big East standings.Midfielder Ian Etherington drew first blood for the Irish 21 minutes, eight seconds into the first half. Lining up for a corner kick, the sophomore bent a perfect ball inside the far post to stake the Irish to an early 1-0 advantage.After failing to find the back of the net in the season’s first nine games, Etherington’s go-ahead goal was his third tally in a five-game stretch.But playing at home with control of the Big East on the line, the Red Storm weren’t ready to hand the Irish the victory. Twenty-two minutes into the second half, St. John’s Matt Groenwald provided the equalizer.Unleashing a 20-yard rocket from the right wing, Groenwald finally pierced Sawyer’s steel curtain in what proved to be the game’s final goal.”I felt we were actually playing our best soccer and getting control of the game when they scored the goal,” Clark said. “Both teams were trying to win the game – there were chances at both ends and both teams had opportunities, but perhaps a tie was a fair result.”St. John’s took 16 shots to Notre Dame’s 12 – the last time an opponent outshot the Irish was Indiana on Sept. 15 – while the Irish served up five corners to the Red Storm’s three.

Notre Dame 1, Seton Hall 0After Oct. 16’s 1-1 stalemate against the Red Storm, the Irish moved to 4-1-1 against ranked teams this season, edging Seton Hall (10-5-1, 5-4-0) 1-0 on Oct. 20.Battling both a strong wing and unfamiliar field conditions – the contest was played on NJIT’s FieldTurf surface when Seton Hall’s grass field was judged unplayable – the Irish were doubled up in shots, 8-4, during the first half of play. But they managed to keep pace with the host Pirates.”There was some rain, and I don’t think their field drains terribly well,” Clark said. “We opened in a fairly strong wind and this wind died almost completely in the second half – it was a tough opening stretch, [but] I thought the team weathered the storm and began to play little bits of soccer.”Sawyer demonstrated what all the hype surrounding the All-American goalkeeper is about 20 minutes into the first half, stoning Seton Hall’s Michael Zotti on a breakaway to keep the Pirates off the scoreboard.While the wind that aided Seton Hall in the first half died down, the Irish were still able to take control of the game in the second half, blasting seven shots to the Pirates’ four.The momentum swing finally paid off for the Irish with just under ten minutes remaining in the contest.A pair of freshmen teamed up to put Notre Dame in front as forward Joe Lapira tapped fellow forward and classmate Alex Yoshinaga’s cross past Pirate goalkeeper Boris Pardo to put the Irish on top for good.Both of Lapira’s two goals this season have been game-winners – the freshman also scored the second goal in Notre Dame’s 4-1 win against conference foe Georgetown at Alumni Field Sept. 18.Sawyer – celebrating his 22nd birthday – finished the game with three saves to pick up his eighth shutout, and Lapira paced the Irish offensive, posting three shots in addition to the match’s lone goal.

Notre Dame 1, Rutgers 0Needing a victory to clinch the Big East with two conference games still remaining on the schedule, the Irish apparently decided sooner is better than later, shutting out the Scarlet Knights (5-8-3, 2-5-2) 1-0 to extend their unbeaten streak to nine games (8-0-1 during the stretch) and take the conference.”It was a really good atmosphere and a great result,” Clark said. “We knew a victory over Rutgers assured us of the regular season title – there was certainly a lot at stake.” The victory over Rutgers was Notre Dame’s first in seven years – the Irish last downed the Scarlet Knights in the 1996 Big East Championship game.While Rutgers outshot Notre Dame 13-10, the match’s lone goal came off the foot of an Irish player.Just over 36 minutes into the first half, senior midfielder Luke Boughen slipped past the Scarlet Knight defense, took a pass from Etherington and pounded the ball into the left corner of the net for a 1-0 lead.”It was one of the best goals of the season so far,” Clark said. “I think we must have strung together about 10 passes. The final pass was a great little first-time pass behind their defense for Luke to run onto and slot past the goalkeeper.”Sawyer made five routine saves as the Irish defense held an opponent to one goal or less for the fifteenth time in 16 games thus far this season – only Indiana was able to find the back of the net on multiple occasions, scoring twice in a 2-0 victory on Sept. 15.The Irish finish out their Big East schedule Saturday night, hosting Connecticut at Alumni Field before welcoming Michigan State Nov. 2 to close out regular season play.