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Men’s Soccer: Team falls short in NCAA quarters again

Greg Arbogast | Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In 2007, Irish coach Bobby Clark must have often felt that he’d pushed the repeat button on the 2006 season.

For the second consecutive year, Clark watched his team hover around the top ten in the rankings, barely fall short of top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament, and follow an opening-game NCAA tournament victory with a road upset of a highly ranked and highly regarded team before falling one step short of the program’s first ever Final Four appearance.

Yet despite the similarities between the past two seasons, Clark highlighted an important difference – expectations.

“Every time you get to a certain level, that’s at least the expectations,” Clark said. “In 2006, we got to the NCAA quarterfinals, so anything less than that would have been a disappointment in the 2007 season, but the expectations were to take it beyond even to some degree. [Our] final ranking of No. 6 was nice. There’s the feeling of satisfaction of being a top-ten team, but we were disappointed not to get to the Final Four.”

Notre Dame could hardly have had a tougher path to the Final Four in 2007. After a second-round victory over Oakland, the draw lined the Irish up with road games at No. 7 Santa Clara – which was unbeaten in its previous 18 matches – and No. 2 Wake Forest, the eventual national champion.

Although Notre Dame stunned Santa Clara 2-0 in what Clark called his most satisfying moment of the season, the Irish were unable to pull off another road upset when they fell to the Demon Deacons 1-0 in overtime. Clark highlighted the difficulty of having to win multiple games on the road to reach the Final Four.

“[Wake Forest] was the best team left in the tournament at that point,” Clark said. “If we had played Wake Forest at our place, we might have played them better, but that’s the way the draw goes.”

The Irish partially had themselves to blame for not securing an easier path to the Final Four. After victories over St. John’s and DePaul, the Irish prepared for a showdown with Connecticut. Both the Big East title and a top-eight (possible top-four) NCAA tournament seed were on the line against the Huskies. Such seeds would have guaranteed Notre Dame more home games in the NCAA tournament, but the Irish fell 2-0 to the Huskies.

“If we had beaten [Connecticut] in the Big East tournament, we might have had an easier road to the Final Four,” Clark said.

Despite the disappointing finish to its season, Notre Dame finished the campaign with a 14-4-5 record, a No. 6 ranking, and the program’s second-ever NCAA quarterfinals appearance. The Irish also enjoyed a nine-game unbeaten streak during which they ascended to the program’s highest-ever national ranking of No. 2.

Leading the way for Notre Dame in 2007 was Joseph Lapira. Coming off a breakout campaign in 2006 that garnered him the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy, the senior forward led the team in goals (nine), assists (10), and points (28). Such play helped Lapira earn first-team All-American honors for the second consecutive season.

The unheralded performance of freshman midfielder Matt Armstrong was equally important to Notre Dame’s success. Given the unenviable task of replacing two-time first team All-American Greg Dalby, Armstrong started every game on his way to earning All-Freshman second team honors from both Soccer America and College Soccer News.

“There’s not many people that could have come in and filled Greg Dalby’s shoes,” Clark said. “We knew Matt could do it. That’s why we put him in there from day one but I don’t think we knew he would do it as well as he did.”

Although Lapira won’t be back in South Bend for the fall, Armstrong will. So will team captains Alex Yoshinaga and Matt Besler as well as four other starters. That’s enough to have Clark optimistic that 2008 will be the year that his team finally takes that next step.

“We have talent on this team to take the next step just like the past two teams have had the talent,” Clark said. “We have the leadership, and we also have the experience.

But Clark also said his coaching career has shown him that the best teams do not always go as far as they are capable in the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s a funny thing. I think back to my three teams at Stanford, and it was probably my least-talented team that reached the Final Four,” he said. “You also have to have a little luck.”