Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By RYAN TOLMICH
For the first time in program history, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish enter the season brandishing the title of reigning national champions.
Led by current Chicago Fire star Harry Shipp, the 2013 team finished 17-1-6 en route to capturing the program’s first national title with a 2-1 win over Maryland in the final game.
Having had eight months to reflect on the accomplishment, head coach Bobby Clark says the team has put last year’s achievements behind them, as they look toward what will surely be a new experience.
“I think I had it in the drawer pretty early in the new year,” Clark said in an interview with SBI. “I don’t think I spent too much time. It’s always nice to win a national championship, but we’ve had teams over a number of years now that were close and given another set of circumstances might have pulled it off.
“You take it and you say ‘that’s great,’ and then you move on. If you tread water for any length of time, the stream will soon pull you back the wrong way. You’ve got to keep moving.”
One of the men charged with keeping the Fighting Irish moving will be Nick Besler, brother of former Notre Dame and current U.S. Men’s National team defender Matt.
A senior midfielder, Besler heads into his senior season ranked as one of the top pro prospects in the nation, and a key to any chance Notre Dame has of repeating as NCAA champions.
“Nick’s a terrific player,” Clark said. “He’s a terrific leader. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be a very important player for us.”
Besler’s health will be vital for the Irish this season, as the midfielder missed eight games last season due to injury. Clark is now looking forward to having an injury-free Besler in the fold.
“He’s a big player for us,” Clark said. “We missed him for eight games last year when he broke his foot. Robby Gallegos had to come in and Connor Klekota had to be the midfield. When Nick came back, it was no question that he’s a very, very important player for us. I think he’s very important, but it’s not about one player. ”
Both Gallegos and Klekota, a senior and junior respectively, will be joined by junior Evan Panken to add experience to the Irish midfield. The attacking unit will be led by a returning Patrick Hodan, the team’s second leading scorer last time out with 11 goals and five assists in just 15 starts, as well as Vince Cicciarelli, who finished third on the team with six goals.
The team’s toughest task will be replacing the productivity of Shipp, who has emerged as a favorite for Rookie of the Year this season with the Fire. However, the team has been down this road before, as the program is no stranger to producing talent that goes on to the next level.
“The immediate loss will be Harry Ship,” Clark said. “(Last year), the two seniors were Harry and Grant van De Casteele, who’s with the Colorado Rapids. They’re both very good players, but if you look at the year before, we lost Dillon Powers and we lost Ryan Finley. Ryan was the runner up for the Hermann award and Dillon went on to Rookie of the Year in MLS. If we’re a good team, we’re always going to lose good players, so we’ve got to have depth. ”
The Irish are sure to be tested in the competitive Atlantic Coast Conference, which produced three teams in last season’s Final Four. The Irish, whose lone loss of the season came to conference for Virginia, were joined by now-departed Maryland as conference co-champions, which Clark takes a great deal of pride in.
“It’s a tough conference,” Clark said. “I think the achievement of last year, as well as winning the national championship, was actually winning the season league, at least sharing it with Maryland. That was a huge accomplishment, actually.
“Maryland have gone to the Big Ten, but Louisville, who we know well from our time in the Big East, they’re a terrific team also. It doesn’t get any easier really. It will be very, very competitive.”
For now, Clark and the Irish are focusing on the season ahead. Despite the preseason rankings and praise heaped upon them, Clark insists his side is prepared for an experience unlike the one that came before.
“One thing is for sure,” Clark said, “this year is going to be different than last year. I think the guys have got to know that. It’s going to be a different type of season. Somehow, we’ve got to find a way to be in the tournament, preferably a high seed.
“We’ve got to get to the tournament. That’s the initial goal. Once we get there, we can look at retaining the trophy.”