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Men’s Soccer: Northwestern foils playoff hopes again

Jared Jedick | Monday, November 23, 2009

Despite a dominating statistical second half and a myriad of scoring opportunities, Notre Dame lost to Northwestern 3-1 Sunday in a repeat of last year’s NCAA tournament loss to the Wildcats. The loss marks the end of the Irish’s season and the beginning of preparations for next year.

“It was just [The Wildcats’] day,” Irish coach Bobby Clark said. “They certainly made the most of their chances.”

Notre Dame (11-8-4) fell behind Northwestern (11-4-4) early and was never able to dig itself out of that hole.

The Irish outshot the Wildcats 21-8 and held a 10-2 advantage in corner kicks.

In the 18th minute, a corner was sent into the box that got caught up in the mass of players in the box. Wildcat midfielder Jack Hillgard emerged with the ball and sent it into the back of the net past senior goalkeeper Andrew Quinn. The score remained 1-0 throughout the first half.

“It was 1-0 at the end of the half, and I felt good,” Clark said. “We were playing well at that point and we started the second half off well too.”

And that second half was a dominant performance by the Irish as they outshot their opponents 17 to five and took 10 corner kicks to the Wildcats’ zero.

“It was one of those games where we lost and we won,” Clark said. “It was as well as we have played all year. In the second half, their goalkeeper had to make 10 saves. I am very proud of the way the players played.”

This dominant statistical performance was a result of the Irish keeping the ball in the Northwestern half of the field for most of the second half. The trouble was that when the Wildcats broke out of their defensive half, they made the most of their chances.

Eight minutes into the second half, the Wildcats began to add cushion to their lead. They countered an Irish attack and got the ball into a good position to cross. The goal again came off the boot of Hillgard, with sophomore midfielder Peter O’Neill and junior forward Matt Eliason assisting. That goal put Northwestern up 2-0.

The Irish still kept up the pressure, but a second counterattack led to another Northwestern goal in the 67th minute. The ball was again fed across in front of the goal, catching Quinn out of position, and Wildcat junior midfielder Piero Bellizzi was able to tap the ball into the open net, putting Northwestern up 3-0.

Although the game was no longer in doubt, the Irish were able to finally break through in the 83rd minute when a loose ball sent into the front of the goal was finished by senior defenseman John Schaefer to crystallize the final tally at 3-1.

The Irish were disappointed at losing for the second year in a row, but Clark is said he is proud of the way his team played and believes they got a good shot at winning.

“You get your shot at it, and you have to take it,” Clark said. “In the end, the thing that really counts is the final score.”

Northwestern has become somewhat of a postseason nemesis for the Irish, as they have lost in the NCAA tournament to them for two consecutive years.

“We always beat them in the preseason friendlies, but that doesn’t count,” Clark said. “It was one of those games we have lost all year where we thought we could win but weren’t able to do it.”

According to Clark, the Irish are eager to get another crack at Northwestern next year, as they have tentatively scheduled a regular season matchup against them.

Clark said he believes that the team had a successful season and the players played up to their potential.

“I really like this team,” Clark said. “They are a good group. You never really reach your goal unless you win it all, but we played to our potential. My way of evaluating the year is, if you make it to the playoffs it is a good year, if you make it to the final four it is a really good year, and if you make it to the championship it is a great year. We had a pretty good season.”

Despite the fact that the team will lose many of its 11 seniors, including Big East Player of the Year Bright Dike, Clark believes the team will be ready to compete again next year.

“The great thing about coaching college sports is that you graduate players and have to find replacements,” Clark said. “We have a strong nucleus of returning players, but it is no use making decisions right now.”

Clark believes that the Notre Dame players did not disappoint anybody and that they should be proud of the way they played.

“They certainly did not let me down, and they did not let themselves down,” Clark said. “There is always disappointment when you lose, but I am very proud of the way these players played.”

Clark also wanted to thank the fans for what he said was the best year of fan support in his tenure at Notre Dame.

“It was the best student support I have ever seen all year,” Clark said. “It was a really fun year.”