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Men’s Soccer: Schaefer steps into starting role after Rellas goes down

Jared Jedick | Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The last thing a team wants to experience to begin the year is a season-ending injury to one of its key players, but that is exactly what happened to the Irish when fifth-year senior defenseman Cory Rellas went down with an ACL injury to his left knee just minutes into the first game of the season against Michigan.

“We didn’t want it to happen that way,” head coach Bobby Clark said. “It was unfortunate. Cory missed last year with an ACL injury too.”

But the Irish had an answer when senior defenseman John Schaefer stepped up and took over the role seamlessly.

“I didn’t see Cory go down,” Schaefer said. “But then [senior goalkeeper Phillip] Tuttle nudged me and I saw him limping off the field. I thought that this is it, you have to go in there and do what you do best.”

And that is exactly what he did, helping the Irish to earn an early opening win against one of the best teams in the country in Michigan.

“I was not nervous at all,” Schaefer said. “I knew I had to finish the game off for [Cory]. He is such a great leader. If we could get him back and he can do a better job for the team, we need to get him out there.”

Schaefer had a long road from playing ball with his brother as a young kid to becoming the starting defenseman for one of the premier college programs in the country. He had only played in two previous games in his college career, and both of those were in his sophomore year.

“It kills you,” Schaefer said. “In my junior year I really wanted to play, but I had some good players ahead of me.”

It is no small wonder why he did not see the field early in his career, as Schaefer has some big Notre Dame shoes to fill, having played behind players like Rellas and Matt Besler, currently a starting defenseman for the Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer.

“I got great experience from watching Matt Besler play and watching Cory [Rellas],” Schaefer said. “Practice is not that different from the games.”

And it is in practice that Schaefer was able to develop his competitive spirit and his work ethic that are finally paying dividends now that he is seeing some real game action.

“As a player at the bottom of the depth chart, you can either slack off, or say that you are going to push everyone around you harder,” Schaefer said. “I chose the latter option. If we want our shot to play, we have to play hard or we won’t get it.”

Clark is impressed with what he sees from Schaefer, noting a player with many of the skills needed to be a good leader.

“[Schaefer] has a very good attitude,” Clark said. “He has learned from his time on the bench. He has played a lot of soccer since he’s been here in practice. He has matured well and been behind some pretty big people.”

And now that he has reached the sarting role, some of Schaefer leadership characteristics are finally getting an opportunity for expression.

“Every day I prepared like I was going to play,” Schaefer said.

Clark likes having a player like Schaefer in one of the most important positions on the pitch, citing his ability to control the game.

“[Schaefer] is able to control the tempo and have the best view of the field from the center defenseman position,” Clark said. “Schaefer has been playing next to a young player in [sophomore defenseman] Chris Sutton and he has taken on the leadership role. He is still growing, and he gets better every game.”

What Schaefer believes he brings to the game is an intensity and competiveness that he believes is key to any team having success.

“Every time I step out onto the pitch, I know I am going to beat this guy no matter what,” Schaefer said. “I know that I can do it and that I have the support of my team.”

This intensity is something Schaefer hopes will translate into more wins for the Irish.

“I think we are much better than our record shows,” Schaefer said. “Look for us to start coming up flying soon.”

The Irish will have the chance to start flying this Friday against Seton Hall.