Kolakowski: Irish face tough slate to close regular season
Ryan Kolakowski | Tuesday, October 9, 2018
The Irish are currently riding high, propelled by a four-game winning streak that included routs over Xavier and Northwestern and a tight victory over ACC foe Boston College. The most impressive performance, however, came on Saturday night when No. 15 Notre Dame took down No. 6 Louisville at Alumni Stadium.
The 2-1 overtime victory over the Cardinals (6-2-2, 3-1-1 ACC) delivered a clear and concise message. The Irish (7-3-1, 3-1-0 ACC) are contenders.
Just two weeks ago, Notre Dame had fallen to 4-3-1 after losing a close home game to No. 3 North Carolina in overtime. After starting the season 4-0-1, the Irish lost three straight matches to top-10 opponents. The Irish could not finish matches, falling twice in overtime, and it looked as though they simply were not capable of hanging with top competition.
It was easy to write off Notre Dame as soft when it failed to seal victories over top competition at home. The team could not get the job done then, so it clearly could not compete with the rest of the strong ACC.
Now the battle-tested Irish appear ready to dial up their performances in the final third of the season.
Notre Dame has already gone down to the closing minutes against No. 2 Indiana, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 6 Louisville and No. 13 Michigan State. The Irish still face a slew of top-flight competition the rest of the regular season, but they have shown they can find a way to win against those top teams.
Of the final five opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule, four are ranked in the United Soccer Coaches Top 25. The lone unranked team, the University of Pittsburgh, is also a worthy competitor. The Panthers may own a 6-5 record, but they fell victim to one-goal losses against No. 3 North Carolina and No. 6 Louisville. Pittsburgh also owns victories over ACC opponents Clemson and NC State, and it will present a challenge when it host Notre Dame for the program’s senior day on Oct. 27.
Unfortunately for the Irish, the toughest challenges will come on the road in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Charlottesville, Virginia. No. 14 Michigan will host the rival Irish next week, and Notre Dame travels to No. 10 Virginia on Oct. 23 to make up a match postponed by Hurricane Florence.
These challenges will further wear down the Irish before ACC Championships kick off on Halloween. While Notre Dame has shown it can compete with some of the top schools in the country, the gauntlet of a schedule will do it no favors before postseason play.
Senior leadership will play a huge role if the Irish can make it through the rest of the schedule unscathed. Graduate student defender and captain Patrick Berneski, who leads the Irish in scoring with five goals, must continue to anchor the back line and be a weapon on set pieces. Senior defender Felicien Dumas, the Tokyo native who leads the Irish with six assists, must continue to generate good looks on goal for his teammates. Senior goalkeeper Ryan Krutz must remain a steady force in the net.
Should these leaders falter, the Irish could easily stumble down the stretch. While the team is deep in young talent, a vicious schedule could easily chew the Irish up before postseason play.
The Irish are experienced. Now, they must show they are ready to win down the stretch.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.