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Saturday, June 15, 2024
The Observer

Another first-round loss ends Irish season

Welcome to Upsetville. Again.

For the second consecutive tournament, the Irish bowed out in their first contest as No. 5 seed Notre Dame (13-3-3) dropped a 2-1 heartbreaker to Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Alumni Field Nov. 23.

In their previous match Nov. 6 - also at home - the conference-favorite No. 1 seed Irish were upset by Seton Hall (0-0, 8-7 in penalty kicks) in the quarterfinals of the Big East Championships.

The Irish joined No. 12 seed Old Dominion and No. 10 seed Penn State as the only seeded squads to fall in the second round of the NCAA Tournament - 16 teams received seeds at the beginning of the tournament.

"I think it was a day that we weren't destined to win for whatever reason, because I think the team played well," Irish coach Bobby Clark said. "There were a lot of positives and they played very hard."

The Irish fell behind early, yielding arguably their softest goal of the year three minutes, 31 seconds after the opening whistle.

Corralling a booming punt from Buckeye goalkeeper Ray Burse, Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Justin Cook fired from inside the box and beat Irish goalkeeper Chris Sawyer for an early 1-0 Ohio State lead.

"They got a goal early and that obviously settled them," Clark said. "It was a disappointing goal from our point of view. [Burse] just got it, raced to the edge of his box and hit this enormous punt and [Cook] latched on to it, made a good run behind our two central defenders and finished it very well."

Although Notre Dame held a 5-4 advantage in shots at the half and dictated the pace of the game, the Irish had trouble producing quality scoring opportunities in the game's first 45 minutes.

"When looking at the video, we actually didn't do so badly in the first half," Clark said. "We controlled the first half without making a lot of chances - we had about 70 percent of the possession."

Faced with the prospect of early elimination, the Irish fought back in the second half. After forward Tony Megna and midfielder Nate Norman nearly put Notre Dame on the scoreboard, defender Christopher High headed home a free kick off the foot of fellow defender Kevin Goldthwaite to provide the equalizer just over 13 minutes into the second half.

"It was a set piece," Clark said. "The boys had worked on it in the days before the game. [High] made a good run and connected with the free kick. It was a good goal, well-taken."

With the score knotted at 1-1, the Irish continued to play inspired soccer, consistently pressuring the Ohio State goal.

The Buckeyes, on the other hand, only recorded one shot in the second half to Notre Dame's eight. One was enough.

With just under 15 minutes to play, Ohio State's Ryan Kustos picked up a loose ball off a Buckeye free kick and pounded it into the net, marking only the second time this season Sawyer and the Irish have allowed more than a single goal.

However, the go-ahead goal didn't come without its share of controversy.

"The whistle [to begin play] went after the kick was taken," Clark said. "Their player didn't know he had to wait until the whistle.

"He took it, and just after he took the free kick, the ref, who wasn't looking at the ball - which didn't make sense - blew his whistle. [The Irish defenders] hesitated because they didn't know why the whistle had gone then and somehow the ball ended up through a lot of players [and into the net]."

Feeling slighted by a questionable turn of events and playing for its tournament life, Notre Dame kept its composure, yet ultimately was unable to find the back of the net for a second time.

"Even after the [Ohio State] goal, we kept our dignity," Clark said. "In a game where the outcome means so much and you seem to get a tough call, it's very easy for teams to dissolve, and I think they hung tight and continued to play tough and well within the rules of the game."

Regardless of the score, the belief that the Irish were the better squad only added insult to injury.

"It was a little bit like last year - without taking anything away from [Ohio State], we felt that we were the better side," Clark said. "I think Ohio State has a good team - you don't win a share of the Big Ten without being a good team - but at the same time I think that we were the better side, and we showed that."

While the wounds from Nov. 23's upset are still relatively fresh and need time to heal, it would difficult to classify a season in which the Irish claimed their first Big East regular season title in program history as anything other than a success.

"I think if you give it another week's time, it will seem a pretty decent season," Clark said. "It's a tough pill to swallow when you see everyone still playing and you say, 'we should still be playing.' When you get a loss like that, the only thing that will make it seem better is time."

Although the 2004 campaign has come to an abrupt, unexpected close, it won't be long until the Irish return to the pitch.

"When we come back from after Christmas Break, we're going full at it again," Clark said. "We usually try to give them about six weeks off so we'll get them a little break - maybe lifting and some easy running just to stop them from putting on too many pounds from the Christmas turkey. We'll do that and then it's time get ready for the 2005 season."