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MEN’S SOCCER: Striker earns Big East honors

Eric Retter | Wednesday, September 6, 2006

In the 98th minute of Sunday’s game against Indiana, junior forward Joseph Lapira won the ball, beat the Hoosiers’ last defender to the inside and chipped the ball into the back of the net – giving No. 8 Notre Dame a 5-4 victory.

Lapira’s game-winning goal was his fourth of the day in the win over the Hoosiers (ranked No. 8 heading into the game). His four-goal total was one shy of Notre Dame’s all-time record set by Kevin Lovejoy in 1993 (5).

For his efforts, which set a record in the 24-year history of the adidas/IU Credit Union Classic, Lapira was named Top Drawer’s National Player of the Week and the offensive MVP of the tournament.

“Joe has all the credentials to be first team All-Big-East player,” head coach Bobby Clark said. “He has all the credentials to be one of the best attacking players in this country. We knew that before he scored four goals, and I don’t think it changes now.”

Individual honors have already started to pile up for the Irish offense, even though the season is still early. Lapira was also named Big East Offensive Player of the Week, becoming the second Irish striker in as many weeks to earn that honor.

Senior Justin McGeeney earned the distinction after he scored two goals in a 4-1 rout of Creighton – which was also ranked No. 8 at the time – during the opening weekend of the season.

“Scoring goals early is always a good thing; it relieves a lot of pressure, especially as a forward,” McGeeney said. “If you don’t score goals, the tension kind of builds up.”

Despite the stellar individual performances of his forwards so far this season, Clark remains wary of too much individual praise.

“Sometimes you get [these awards] and sometime you don’t, but I think you usually get them when the team’s done well,” he said. “When [a forward] scores a goal, there’s usually an assist behind the goal, and somebody had to win the ball first so it’s usually a team effort.”

Clark also noted that it takes a special type of player to be a goal scorer at this level.

“If you are a forward, you’re always living on the edge,” he said. “There’s always a fine line between it being a great game and it being a not so great game, and I think that’s part of it, you need to be tough to survive and be a forward.”

This season, the Irish have five players who meet Clark’s description for goal scorers and who will compete to split time this season – Lapira, McGeeney, sophomore Bright Dike, junior Kurt Martin and freshman Tamba Samba, who could prove to be a solid contributor despite the talent ahead of him.

“It keeps everybody on their toes,” Clark said. “One of the nice things is that someday maybe it’s not their day, or they get a minor injury like Justin had last weekend [missing the Indiana game], and the other players are very happy to fill in. They all get on tremendously well.”

Naturally, the battle for playing time means there is strong competition – even in practice.

“There’s rivalries; there will always be rivalry, but there’s also great camaraderie,” Clark said.

However, the players see the intra-squad competition as a positive.

“We’re playing people in practice that are just as good as half the people we come up against [in games], and that just makes us that much better,” Lapira said. “I know that if I go out and bust my [rear] for 30 minutes, somebody else can come in for 15 minutes and bust theirs. … It just gives us a lot of opportunities for people to sub on, and we’re confident that every forward that subs in is going score goals.”

Clark also believes each of his forwards will rise to the occasion during the course of the season.

“Bright [Dike] can break out as well, [and] I wouldn’t be surprised if Bright breaks out this weekend,” he said. “Kurt Martin can also get goals … and then, you know, you’ve got Tamba Samba waiting in the wings. We’re very talented in that respect.”

As an offensive unit, each player plays a unique role on the squad, especially McGeeney, the only senior forward Notre Dame has this season.

“[McGeeney is] the father of all the younger strikers,” Clark said. “He’s the father of them all – maybe the grandfather of them all. He’s the elder statesmen. They all look up to him, and he carries himself very well.”

McGeeney credits the team’s offseason workouts for the improved attack displayed early this year.

“The spring was good for getting all of us on the same page,” he said. “More than anything, it was just getting us forwards together getting us to work with each other [and] work off each other. We know the kinds of runs each other makes. We kind of complement each other and know how each other play and it makes it easier.”

The two most experienced strikers, Lapira and McGeeney, have become especially close in their time together.

“Me and ‘Geeny have been playing together for three years now, [and] of the forwards, me and Justin are by far the closest friends,” Lapira said. “We have our own little pregame ritual, and it’s been that way since the beginning. It helps a lot having him.”

According to Lapira, that ritual includes writing the same phrase on their chests before each game. To Lapira however, the ritual is close to his heart – and he’s keeping it that way.

“I don’t think you would want to put that in the paper,” he said. “It’s just personal.”

Ironically, despite their history together and the fact that they have accounted for all but two of Notre Dame’s goals this season, neither McGeeney nor Lapira has scored while the other is on the field.

“We kind of joke about that,” Lapira said. “We play so well together we just haven’t gotten it done this year.”

As far as the rest of the season, Lapira believes he has the exact goals as the rest of the forwards – and the rest of the team.

“I just want to make everyone else around me better, I guess that’s every one of our goals, just to step up and make the team better,” he said. “As a team, we just got to keep playing consistently. Obviously, everyone’s goal is to make the tournament and win it, but it’s a long way until then, so for now our goal is to beat South Florida.”

They’ll get their chance Friday night at 7:30 at Alumni Field.