Heading to Carolina: Notre Dame soccer team defies expectations in run to the College Cup
SOUTH BEND — The Notre Dame men's soccer team has been defying expectations all season long.
It was picked to finish last in the ACC preseason poll.
It was seeded fifth in the conference tournament, only to go on and win without allowing a goal in four games.
And Saturday, in its NCAA Tournament Elite Eight game game at home against No. 5 Pittsburgh, Notre Dame battled back from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 in a penalty kick shootout, advancing the Irish to their first College Cup since 2013.
Time and time again this season, the Irish have exceeded whatever ceiling people outside of their locker room have placed over them.
"We had a chip on our shoulder and that chip isn’t going anywhere until we win the national championship," sophomore defender Paddy Burns said following Saturday's win.
That chip, however big it is now, is headed to Cary, North Carolina, where No. 4 seed Notre Dame will play No. 8 Clemson. No. 3 Georgetown will play No. 2 Washington in the other semifinal.
"Obviously super exciting," sophomore goalkeeper Bryan Dowd said. "I think it is maybe the second time we have ever been. I know the last time we won, so we honestly will celebrate tonight and just focus on whoever our next opponent is and make sure we are headed to the final."
Dowd came up with two clutch saves during Saturday's penalty kicks; one against Filip Mirkovic and the second, a dive to his right against Pitt's Alexander Dexter, sent the crowd of 1,300-plus at Alumni Stadium into ecstasy.
It didn't matter that he gave up a goal in the 41st minute to Guilherme Feitosa, the first Notre Dame has surrendered during its tournament run, which also ended a 650-minute scoreless streak.
More than 60 minutes later he and his teammates got the last laugh.
"Obviously bummed, but we are headed to the Final Four, so don’t really care about it too much," Dowd said of the streak. "I guess now I will try to break the record again with these next two games."
The reason he now has that opportunity was because of Burns' 67th minute equalizer off a set piece, when he headed the ball into the net to tie the game at 1.
"I thought we deserved to advance," fourth-year Notre Dame head coach Chad Riley said. "I thought we played really well during the game. We just couldn’t quite finish some of the chances we created. Their goal came a little bit against the run of play, but overall really proud of this team because they just embodied being a team."
The Irish found themselves chasing the game for the first time since Oct. 29, when they lost 3-1 to North Carolina. They didn't flinch.
"We always prepare for all eventualities," Burns said. "We have too many competitors in the group, too many leaders in the group, too many good footballers in the group to not respond when we go one-goal down.
"... Our backs were against the wall a little bit in the first half. We took it to halftime, one goal down and were filled with belief."
Belief can change so much.
Blowing a lead in the season-opener to No. 2 Indiana. Blowing another lead a week later to Michigan State. An overtime loss at Virginia Tech. Then falling behind for the first time in the NCAA Tournament at the absolute worst time.
But all season, inside of Notre Dame's locker room, there was a belief that this season would end with the Irish determining their destiny, no matter what polls or pundits said.
"I think it is the old cliché that the sum of the parts is much better," Riley said. "We got very good players and they play for each other. I think over the course of time, defensively they play for each other. On the attack they play for each other. I think you just see it in the results."
The Irish saw it each of the three times they beat the Panthers this season — a double-overtime win on Oct 16, in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament and Saturday's national quarterfinal.
It was games, scenes and moments like Saturday's that returned Riley to Notre Dame. Four years ago he left his head coaching position at Dartmouth to return to his alma mater, where he played from 2000-03, because he believed he could be the guy to bring a steady Notre Dame soccer program back to the biggest stage.
"I think you as a coach have a lot of belief in yourself," Riley said with a smile. "This is certainly where we wanted to be when we came back."
He's there, and so are the Irish.