The turning point of the match, if not the end of the Notre Dame men's soccer season, should have come at 5:38 p.m. on Sunday. Only 27 minutes had been played in Notre Dame's NCAA Tournament Round of 16 clash with Western Michigan, and the Irish knew the next 63-plus would be daunting. Sophomore midfielder KK Baffour was given just the second red card the Irish have received all season. By the time the dust settled, the Irish played 83 minutes against the 17-1-3 Broncos while down a man.
Instead, the defining image of Sunday's postseason duel was not a referee's arm raising but the white jersey of Irish senior forward Daniel Russo blending in with the snow-covered pitch. Russo was quickly joined in the corner of the Winter Wonderland that Alumni Stadium had become by senior goalkeeper Bryan Dowd and everyone else who could get there.
Russo was the fourth Irish player to take the ball in penalty kicks. Just like junior forward Matthew Roou, senior defender Paddy Burns and junior forward Eno Nto, he made no mistake. Thanks to a first-round save by Dowd and a second-round Broncos shot off the woodwork, Russo's strike was enough to send the Irish through. Notre Dame is back in the NCAA Quarterfinals, one year removed from missing the tournament entirely and two years from their last appearance in the College Cup.
Getting to PKs was the hard part for Notre Dame, though winning there certainly wasn't a given. From Baffour's red card to the end of regular time, shots were 8-5 in favor of Western Michigan. An edge, sure, but not as drastic as it could have been with Notre Dame down one man. The Irish actually earned more corners than the Broncos (9-8) and put more shots on target in the second half (3-2). Possession was essentially a dead heat. Despite the massive disadvantage, the Irish hung right with their opponents and kept the match at 0-0 heading into PKs.
The Irish backline, of course, had to be on their A-game once Baffour's night ended. Junior Kyle Genenbacher and graduate student Mo Williams both made several key defensive stands to stymie Broncos chances. Dowd stopped all seven shots he faced, his second-highest single-game total this season. And that doesn't even include the diving lunge he made on the shot of NCAA scoring leader Charlie Sharp to set the tone in the shootout that the Irish would eventually win.
Notre Dame's Quarterfinal match pits them against Indiana, a familiar foe. Earlier this year, the Irish and Hoosiers fought to a 1-1 draw at Alumni Stadium. That was the first game of the year for the Irish, so things will look different when they return to the pitch on Saturday. For one, Baffour won't be allowed to join them as a result of his red card. But Sunday's win showed that the Irish can handle anything the game — or the weather — can throw at them.
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