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Friday, April 19, 2024
The Observer

Nto's goal pushes Irish past Beavers, sends Notre Dame to national title game

Graduate student midfielder Ethan O'Brien dodges a defender during Notre Dame's 1-0 win over Oregon State in the College Cup Semifinal in Louisville, Kentucky.

LOUISVILLE, KY. — It only took a moment for Notre Dame men’s soccer on Friday night.

Early in the second half, sophomore midfielder Wyatt Lewis picked up the ball and drove toward the heart of the Oregon State defense. He could have taken a shot. Instead, he slid the ball to the foot of junior forward Eno Nto.

Nto flicked the ball up and fired home the volley, making a tremendous finish look routine. It was just Notre Dame's third shot on target of the game. But it was the only one the Irish would need.

It didn’t matter that Notre Dame would spend the next 40 minutes clawing away Beaver chance after Beaver chance. It didn’t matter that the Irish would put only one more shot on the Oregon State net for the rest of the game.

Notre Dame had their goal. A flash of brilliance that broke through an otherwise resilient Beaver defense. But more often than not, this Irish team only needs one moment to win games. 

An undefeated record in games where head coach Chad Riley’s squad scores first stands as a testament to such an assessment. So does the fact that the team has only conceded just 6 second-half goals all season. Notre Dame has now kept clean sheets in three of their four NCAA Tournament matches.

There were moments of panic for the Irish defense in the second half. Junior defender Josh Ramsey saved a surefire goal off the line in the 67th minute. A late barrage of Beaver forays into the box led to more than a few stressed Notre Dame fans in the stands at Lynn Family Stadium. But Riley, and his resolute backline, remained composed and confident.

“I don’t know if you’re even aware of your heart rate in those moments,” said Riley. “But I do have a lot of trust in the goalkeeper and the defenders to make plays in those moments.”

Nto’s moment of magic was the type of finish you only see once in a tournament. But the Irish defense’s ability to hold the line when the stakes are highest has been a season-long theme. Notre Dame isn’t a one-dimensional team by any means. However, their backline has rapidly emerged as one dimension that ranks among the best of the best in the country.

When the Irish shifted formations, adding another center back to the field in the 80th minute with the substitution of graduate student defender Mo Williams, the team looked just as comfortable as they did in a four-defender setup. They’re well-marshaled, perhaps the product of a defensive rotation that includes four upperclassmen.

In 2021, Notre Dame made a run to the College Cup but ultimately looked like a team without deep postseason experience when the ball kicked off in Cary, North Carolina. This time around, the Irish looked like a unit that had learned valuable lessons from their loss two years ago. It was clear from the first challenge onward that they didn’t come to Louisville to merely take part or check a box for a team that hadn’t been to soccer’s pinnacle in nearly a decade. They came to compete.

They came to win.

No player perhaps encapsulates that growth in mentality like Nto. He’s one of the few upperclassmen in the current Notre Dame rotation that didn’t play a role in the team’s postseason run in the 2021 edition of the tournament. He appeared in a variety of contests throughout the regular season but saw his minutes decrease as the year went on. He described the experience as one of learning.

This year, though, he’s a key part of a timely Irish attack, one that keeps delivering in the biggest moments. His goal on Friday cemented him as the team’s leading scorer entering Monday’s title game. Much like the squad around him, Nto seems to have a knack for meeting the moment, and he knows it.

“These are the nights that you want to play in,” Nto said. Thanks to his goal, the Irish have one more of those coming up on Monday.

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