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Irish men’s soccer look for first ACC win in road match at Virginia

On paper, Notre Dame men’s soccer (1-2-1, 0-1-0 ACC) matchup against the Virginia Cavaliers isn’t an ideal matchup. The Irish are still looking to find their stride this season. They have scored more than one goal in three of their four matches. And while Virginia was picked last in their division in the ACC Preseason Poll, the Cavaliers are off to a solid 4-2 start. Plus, the Irish can tell you how much preseason rankings matter as much as anyone. After all, they overcame the same projection a year ago to make the College Cup.

But Friday’s contest offers the Irish a chance to rise to the increasing level of the Cavaliers. Sometimes, good teams just need the right opponent to push them. A Virginia team with a roster not expected to produce a strong season but playing some strong soccer right now could be the right matchup. And if nothing else, the Cavaliers provide the Irish a second chance to get their first conference win of the season, after the Irish fell in Syracuse 1-0 on Saturday.

After dropping their season opener to Xavier 1-0, the Cavaliers have emerged as a dominant offensive team. Virginia has scored at least three goals in four of its five matches since that game. The lone exception was a difficult matchup against No. 6 Maryland, which ended in a 6-1 defeat. But other than that, the Cavaliers have run the table. In fact, Virginia scored five goals in its last game against La Salle (5-0), the same amount the Irish have in four games this season. Obviously, quality of opponent matters. But Virginia certainly looks like a team that could give the Irish defense and junior goaltender Bryan Dowd a handful.

Leo Afonso has lead the way for Virginia with four goals on a whopping 30 shots (14 on goal) so far. His four tallies are tied for 15th in the country as well as for fourth among players in the ACC. Striker Philip Horton, a breakout candidate for the Cavaliers, scored two goals and added an assist. Virginia also rosters an ACC Preseason Watchlist honoree in senior defender Andreas Ueland. Virginia has four players with at least two goals. And, ten Cavaliers have found the back of the net at least once in this still young season.

Notre Dame does come into this meeting with some recent history on their side. The Cavaliers haven’t beaten the Irish in regulation since the 2019-20 season, with Notre Dame winning the last two meetings the teams have played. It is worth noting that both of those games were at Alumni Stadium, however. The only other meeting since was a 1-0 overtime win by Virginia in 2021. That game would end as a 0-0 tie today under college soccer’s new rules.

The Irish take on the Cavaliers at 7 p.m EST in Charlottesville this Friday, Sept. 16. The game can be streamed on ACCNX via WatchESPN.

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McGuinness: Taking stock of the MLB postseason race

There are few moments as exciting on the sports calendar as the final three weeks of an MLB season. The everyday nature of the sport captivates the emotions of fans and their teams whose destinations after the regular season ends on Oct. 5 remain unknown. Add in an extra wild card spot in each league to expand the number of teams still in the mix and the importance of finishing top-two in each league to avoid the expanded best-of-three Wild Card round, and there’s even more intensity than ever.

So, with just 20 days remaining in the 2022 season, now is as good a time as any to review where the key races stand. And there are a lot of them. Only one team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, has already punched their postseason ticket. A few others — namely the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, and New York Yankees — are all but assured to join them. But even those teams have plenty to play for down the stretch.

The West divisions in both leagues are all the easiest to analyze. The Dodgers have officially clinched the NL West pennant, their ninth in the last 10 seasons. The Houston Astros, who have won the AL West four of the past five seasons, won’t be far behind. They currently lead the Seattle Mariners by 12.5 games.

Every other division race has at least some intrigue to it. The Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals are looking like the safest bets, with six and and seven game leads over the next closest teams, respectively. The Yankees rebounded in September after a brutal August that saw a once comfortable division lead start to shrink. The Cardinals have been playing outstanding baseball over the last few months, and there’s more drama around whether Albert Pujols can slug three more home runs to reach 700 for his career than their status for the postseason.

Meanwhile, the AL Central and NL East are total dead heats. Cleveland has been in control of the Central for a little while now with the Twins going cold. Meanwhile, the White Sox are looking to avoid being labeled the season’s biggest disappointment, winning 10 of their last 14 to pull within three games of the Guardians. Cleveland’s outstanding pitching could make them a tricky Wild Card round opponent, but the Guardians have to get there first.

Like their New York brethren, the Mets have seen a once comfortable division lead dwindle to almost nothing. However, it’s not that the Mets have fallen into a significant slump. Rather, the Braves look simply unbeatable for about the third extended period since May. Both old and new faces have capitulated the Braves up the standings. Plus, two-time All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies could return from the IL soon. A three-game head-to-head series in Atlanta from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 could decide this race.

As is typical, the tightest races are for Wild Card spots in both leagues. The American League is largely about playing for seeding at this point, although that’s as important as ever since the best Wild Card team will host their first series. That would be especially significant for the Toronto Blue Jays, considering multiple teams have been missing players when going to Toronto throughout the year due to Canada’s vaccine mandate. Toronto’s also on a strong 7-3 run, which is tied for the third best record of any team in their last 10 games.

Just a half game separates Toronto from the Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays for Wild Card No. 1. The Rays have cooled off a bit after looking like legit challengers to the Yankees for a New York minute. Still, their depth is as outstanding as ever. And they’ll be even more dangerous if they get AL Cy Young contender Shane McClanahan back from injury soon.

Just getting in would be massive for the Mariners, who hold the longest postseason drought in the four major sports dating back to 2001. They came very close last year, missing by just two games. An aggressive offseason and infusion of youth looks like enough to push them over the top. The Baltimore Orioles are the only team within six games of the Mariners and Rays. And while it looks like the young O’s won’t have enough to make the postseason, this is still an incredibly encouraging year after losing 110 games a year ago. They could easily be on the right side of this mix in a similar article next year.

The loser of the Braves-Mets NL East race will almost certainly claim the first Wild Card spot. The other two, however, are still up for grabs. After years of not being able to make a big push from just behind the pack in September, it’s the Phillies who are currently in the best shape. Improved depth and production from their youth have pushed the Phillies, who hold the sport’s second longest postseason drought, to lead the Padres by 1.5 games and the Brewers by 3.5, holding the tiebreaker over both.

San Diego currently sits in the final Wild Card spot one year after missing the postseason in shocking fashion. The Padres are in a bit of a weird spot this year, too. They added star power in Juan Soto and Josh Hader (the latter ironically coming from Milwaukee) and quality depth in Josh Bell and Brandon Drury at the trade deadline. However, with Fernando Tatís Jr’s return spoiled due to suspension, the Padres aren’t as strong as they could be.

However, they’re still in a solid spot. The Brewers are as one-dimensional as any team still in the race. Their starting pitching is still outstanding and Devin Williams is lights out in the bullpen. But their offense lacks star power, with only one player (Hunter Renfroe) sporting an OPS above .800. Like the White Sox, that type of team can be very dangerous in the postseason if the right player or two gets hot. But they have to get there first.

Regardless of the results, it’s shaping up to be an exciting stretch run. At least three spots (AL Central champion, Wild Cards 2-3 in the NL) are undecided. And most of the other nine teams are in legitimate battles for seeding, which again is more important than ever under the new postseason format. All of it will somehow be sorted out in the next three weeks. What happens, of course, remains unknown. But whatever unfolds should be a blast to watch.

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu.

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After notching season’s first win, Irish volleyball travel to Long Beach State Tournament

The energy rose inside Purcell Pavillion Sunday afternoon as the clock neared 4 p.m. The Notre Dame volleyball team had lost their first two games of the season in fairly decisive fashion, but they were all even as they prepared for a fifth and decisive set against Milwaukee University. It would have been understandable if a young Irish team, and their new head coach Salima Rockwell, felt the pressure of the moment. But instead, Rockwell encouraged her team to embrace it.

“I live for fifth sets,” Rockwell told The Observer after the Irish closed out a 3-2 victory over the Panthers, her first win at Notre Dame. “(I told them) this is why you come here, this is why you play volleyball. So let’s rise to this.”

Rise they did. Notre Dame jumped out a 7-0 lead in set five and never trailed, winning the set 15-13 to secure Rockwell’s first victory on the final day of the 2022 Irish Invitational. It may not have been a perfect weekend, but Rockwell and the Irish learned a lot.

“Our team knows how to battle,” said Rockwell. “They can find ways to win. We’ve got to find a way to string wins together and not give up big runs. We’re a very aggressive serving team, and we can get teams out of system. They’re a joy to coach. We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot to work on.”

They’ll have to do that work fast, as the Irish head out west to the Long Beach State Invitational this weekend. Their first two games of the tournament pit them against Boise State and host Long Beach State, two talented teams that are off to strong starts in 2022. The Boise State Broncos are 2-0 on the year, while the Long State Elbees won their first two games before dropping a tight fifth set 16-18 to No. 19 Oregon on Saturday. Both matches for the Irish will begin at 10 p.m. EST (7 p.m. PST) with the Boise State matchup Friday night and Long State Saturday.

Though they’re unranked, Boise State could be one of the most difficult matchups the Irish will have all season. The Broncos went 24-11 last season, winning the Mountain West Championship and making the NCAA Tournament. The Broncos took a pair of matchups against St. Mary’s to start 2022 by scores of 3-0 and 3-1, respectively. Outside hitter Lauren Ohlinger and middle blocker Paige Bartsch were both named to the preseason All-Mountain West team, with Bartsch selected as the conference’s preseason player of the year.

Long Beach State also has a new head coach in Tyler Hildebrand. The team was picked fourth in preseason Big West polling, with outside hitter Katie Kennedy and setter Zayna Mayer named to the conference’s preseason Coaches Team. Long Beach State began the year with victories over Oregon State and Portland State before their aforementioned loss to No. 19 Oregon.

Andrew McGuinness

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu.