ND readies for matchup against No. 3 Tar Heels
Manuel De Jesus | Thursday, September 17, 2015
No. 2 Notre Dame seeks to move past its first loss of the season and turn its focus toward its matchup against No. 3 North Carolina on Friday.
The Irish (4-1-1, 1-0 ACC) fell to Xavier, 1-0, on Tuesday at Alumni Stadium, their first loss since Virginia ended their season last year in the third round of the NCAA tournament. Despite that blemish on its record, Irish head coach Bobby Clark said his team understands the implications this matchup carries far outweigh what it’s worth to dwell on the loss.
“This is the biggest game in the collegiate calendar this week,” Clark said. “Currently, if you go by Monday’s ranking, we’re No. 2, and they’re No.3. We might not be two after Tuesday’s loss, but it’s still a big ACC match, a national match. It’s a good test to go to a place like Fetzer Field and play a game there. It’s a challenge good teams love, and this will be a test.
“To be honest, every game in the ACC is a test, but this is certainly one of the biggest.”
The Tar Heels (4-0-1, ACC 1-0), unlike the Irish, last played a game week ago against Virginia Tech, so Clark said he expects they’ll be well rested. Clark said while it’s going to be tough to play on such a quick turnaround, his players will be more than ready to approach the challenge head-on.
“One of hardest things for us as we rebound is that North Carolina didn’t have a game this week,” Clark said. “I think they played like a week ago. So they haven’t played for a week, whereas obviously we had the Saturday and the Tuesday game. Our guys are fit, and I think they’ve responded pretty well, so I think we’ll be OK. They’re looking forward to this game.”
North Carolina advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament last season before losing to UCLA on penalty kicks. The Tar Heels ranked as the country’s highest scoring offense, accumulating the most goals and points nationally as well as the third-most assists by the end of the season.
This season, North Carolina is currently tied for 39th in offense, scoring 1.8 goals per contest, which is well below where it finished a season ago. Regardless, it is ranked the third-best team in the country, and Clark said this is going to be one of the biggest challenges of the season.
“I love it, and our guys love playing big games,” Clark said. “That’s one of the reasons you play. To be challenged in big matches. That’s what you dream about. So the guys will all be wanting to play in this game. There’s no one that doesn’t want to play in this game.”
While the Irish would rather forget what happened against Xavier, some of the players said they think there are things they can learn from that loss that can be used to beat North Carolina.
“We definitely created chances [against Xavier],” senior midfielder Evan Panken said. “We just didn’t take them yesterday, but like they say, you have to have a short memory. You try not to dwell on it but have confidence because we’re all good players, and we know we’ll be able to take those chances when they come again.”
Against Xavier, Panken led the Irish with three shots on goal but failed to convert any of them into scores. So far this season, North Carolina has allowed two goals combined. They conceded one goal against William & Mary and Tulsa and have shut out the other three opponents they’ve faced.
Of note is the fact ESPNU has decided to broadcast the game, the only regular season ACC matchup the network has decided to broadcast this season. Despite the national coverage, Notre Dame is confident its players won’t fall victim to the nerves that come along with playing in such a high-profile game.
“We all know each other pretty well,” senior midfielder Connor Klekota said. “We’re not a group that gets too hyped about a game. We realize it’s a big game, but we also realize it’s just another soccer game. We’ve played thousands of these in our lives.”
The Irish will kick off their matchup against the Tar Heels on Friday at 5 p.m. at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.