Seniors try to guide Notre Dame to a third straight state title
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
The Notre Dame boys soccer team sits two wins away from joining an elusive group.
If the Bulldogs can win their next two games, they would join Whitfield, St. Mary's, Vianney and Aquinas-Mercy, now part of Trinity, as the only programs to win three straight state soccer titles.
At the center of Notre Dame's team is a sextuplet of seniors that will play for its third straight championship ring, starting Friday against Helias at the Anheuser-Busch Center in Fenton.
"It's a dream come true," forward John Unterreiner said. "The first year was great because it was a barrier breaker. Last year was gravy. This year takes on a different aspect when you become a senior. You realize this is the last time you get to wear the ND across your chest. This is it."
Unterreiner, Brock Dirnberger, Joda Holloway, Josh Robert, Nick Wren and Ryan Bass comprise the backbone of the Notre Dame team. Coach Brad Wittenborn, who has won a combined five state titles in boys soccer and basketball, credits the seniors on the last two teams with nurturing this year's senior class.
"We've had very good groups ahead of them so we didn't have to rely on them as sophomores and juniors to carry the load," Wittenborn said. "We graduated some very good players the last two years. That tradition, and they got to watch the work ethic of a Ty Williams last year, that helped form them as players and their dedication."
Williams was last year's leading scorer who has moved on to the University of Richmond.
The six players account for 77 percent of the team's goals this season. They are spread across the field, with Dirnberger and Unterreiner playing forward, Robert and Holloway midfield, Wren defense and Bass goalkeeper. Bass owns the school's career shutouts record, while Unterreiner is tied for the career assists record.
"It seems like we don't have a weak spot on the team," Robert said. "We know we can come from the outside and go down the line. We can play long ball toward our forwards. If you see our score sheets, it's spread out throughout the midfield and the forwards.
"You have to play good soccer to beat us."
Notre Dame hasn't ended a soccer season with a loss since 2005. That success has placed added pressure on this year's team to continue the winning tradition.
"It's hard not to expect it since we knew we were going to be a good team again this year," Holloway said about earning a trip to the state tournament. "Some people around the school, it seems like they expect it. That's not a good attitude to have. We tried to stay away from it, but some of the expectations are hard to stay away from."
Robert likes the high expectations. He likes that fans and the community expected the Bulldogs to return to the final four, but he doesn't let those expectations weigh him down.
"I know we won the past two years, but we're just going up there to play our game," he said. "I guess we should have some pressure, but we shouldn't let it get to our head. But I don't think the pressure is like mounting that it's killing us."
Thinking about playing for a third straight state title isn't all positive thoughts.
"I'm not looking forward to it," Dirnberger said. "It's weird knowing my last game is coming up. I don't like to think about it."
Wren echoed his teammate's sentiments.
"It's bittersweet," he said. "You want to go up there and make an impression. To win for the third year in a row would be awesome. But at the same time, you don't want it to end. You've been with these guys for three or four years, and we're all like a family."
Dirnberger saw limited action as a sophomore, but made up for lost time as a junior. He scored 11 goals last season, and doubled that total this season. He's the player the Bulldogs count on to put the ball in the net.
"Last year I felt the pressure the most because it was really my first trip of playing full time," Dirnberger said. "Sophomore year, I played a little bit, but not full time. This year I still feel pressure, but I'm dealing with it a lot better."
Dirnberger packs a mean punch into his 5-foot-5 frame. He utilizes his speed to chase down balls, and can deke his way around most defenders. He isn't afraid to get his teammates involved, either. While he's scored six game-winning goals this season, he's dished out 10 assists.
Unterreiner served as the guy who put the ball on the foot of his teammates in scoring situations during his first two seasons. He's still piling up assists, but he also has scored some goals this season.
Unterreiner, the lone soccer player who already has three state championship rings (he won one in basketball last year), leads the team with 15 assists. He's added 13 goals.
He uses his blazing speed to get around defenders, and he isn't afraid to muscle his way past opponents. He said this year's team is special because of the leadership offered by the 11 seniors on the roster.
"It's a different core of leaders," he said. "In '06, we had those seniors and they led us. Last year we had seniors who led us. This year we're the guys who are leading. The past two years, I think we were thrilled and we all contributed. We were definitely part of that team, but it wasn't necessarily our team to lead. This year we've taken it on our shoulders and got the job done."
Holloway admits he used to be one of the players who regularly would offer his thoughts to the referee during a game. But now that he's a senior, he's tried to curtail that pastime.
"I've got to watch the way I react," he said. "Normally I would be a guy who would antagonize a little bit, but I can't do that at all in the situation we're at right now. I've never really been a leader on a team before. All the other teams I've been on, I was a role player. It's definitely a little different perspective."
Holloway has scored nine goals and added 10 assists from the midfield. He sees his role as the player who keeps the Bulldogs even-keeled.
"I try to determine the pace of the play," he said. "I try to be a leader on the field. I try to keep my emotions in check when things are getting out of line. I'm a pacemaker almost, get things quick when they need to be quick and slow things down and spread the ball out when you need to slow it down."
He also has a little added incentive to win a third straight title. His younger brother James serves as the backup goalkeeper this season.
"I would like to win a title with him," he said. "That would be really special for me personally. But with all these guys, I've got good bonds with every single one of these guys. To finish out on a positive note would be good."
It almost wasn't
Wren nearly saw his season end prematurely when he broke his right arm against Jackson on Oct. 2.
"After that, I thought I was done," Wren said. "I didn't think I would play again for sure. But my doctor did a good job of getting me back in. I was anxious to get back.
"It was hard, but at the same time, I couldn't be moping around. I needed to be like, 'This happened to me, but you need to go out there and do your job. Don't worry about me.' That's what I planned on doing, but I got back in and now I can contribute a little more than that."
Wren returned with his arm in a cast, and now he's playing without a cast. He's made sure to enjoy every minute since his return.
"It makes you not take anything for granted because in one play it can be taken away from you," he said.
Wren is an important part of the Bulldogs' defense, which allowed 17 goals in 26 games. He's helped some offensively, adding six goals and four assists.
A little of everything
Robert is one of the more unheralded players on the Bulldogs' roster. The midfielder is third on the team with 10 goals and tied for third with 10 assists.
"I've won two state championships and I'm going back right now," he said. "I can't wait until Thursday when we go up."
He said nothing compares to playing in the state tournament in front of big crowds and on one of the state's best fields.
"People say we're going to remember it our whole lives, and I'm sure we will," he said. "It's something no one can take away from us. It's exciting. I love playing up there. It's just a good feeling going up there."
Bass finished with a .904 save percentage and posted 15 shutouts this season. He owns the school's career shutouts records, and would love to add a third state title to his resume.
"The first one felt absolutely amazing and the second one didn't feel anything less," he said. "To get back and get that feeling one last time before you get out of here, it's a neat little thing to get."
Bass said a lot has changed since the first state title for the six seniors who will play for their third straight title this weekend.
"We were joking the other day about how we've matured," he said. "Sophomore year, after we won state, it was pretty bad. We made sure everyone knew about it. Now, people congratulate you and you move on."
Getting it done
Experience is a valuable commodity at the state tournament, and Notre Dame boasts plenty of it. But the six seniors who are making their third straight trip know they've needed a little luck along the way. All of them admitted they're a little surprised to be making the trip to the final four for the third time.
"I knew we had the potential to be very good," Holloway said. "But every year you enjoy state. You think it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We were just fortunate to keep going back."
And now they're on the brink of joining the list of programs to capture three consecutive titles.
"That would be something that would be remembered around here for a long time," Wren said.