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Nail-biters energize state-bound Notre Dame boys soccer team
Notre Dame has made a habit of prevailing in overtime
Notre Dame senior Ethan Huber claimed the Bulldogs' propensity for nail-biters this season is a conspiracy.
"I'm just making my mom and everybody else scared," he said with a laugh. "That way they cheer louder."
Overtime became the norm during Notre Dame's run to the Class 2 District 1 title. The Bulldogs downed De Soto in the opener with a goal early in the first overtime session then needed penalty kicks to oust Hillsboro in the semifinals and Farmington in the championship game.
"We've just been put in those situations so many times, we just know what to do," Notre Dame senior Jake Pewitt said. "We're still pretty nervous. We just know how to deal with our nerves better in that situation, I guess."
The Bulldogs will try to continue surviving in close games when they play Bolivar in a Class 2 state semifinal at 11 a.m. Friday at the Anheuser-Busch Center in Fenton, Mo.
"We have to keep playing hard and keep playing like it's the last game," senior Ke-Ke Kellum said. "With districts, you know if you lose, you have to go home. In the playoffs, the first game you become satisfied because you know you're not going home right away. We have to keep that killer instinct. We have to keep playing hard."
Notre Dame's season came close to ending in every postseason game this year with three overtime games to open the playoffs. The Bulldogs then trailed twice against Bishop DuBourg in the state quarterfinals.
"We've had so many times where we've been down and came back, it's kind of our thing," Huber said.
The Bulldogs offer two reasons for remaining calm in close games. Their first explanation is that the team has been in close games all season. The second reason is the senior leadership on the team won't allow the younger players to freak out when the Bulldogs fall behind.
Seven of Notre Dame's first 12 games went to overtime and the Bulldogs dropped six of those overtime contests. But those early setbacks helped the team become comfortable with the pressure that comes in golden-goal situations.
"I've got my head up high when we're going to overtime," Kellum said. "I think we're going to win.
"You've just got to keep playing strong and don't have any letups. You've got to keep playing strong, never give up, keep playing until you score."
Kellum credited assistant coach Matt Vollink with preparing the team to battle fatigue in the postseason. He said Vollink put the team through difficult workouts before district play began to prepare it for three games in four days.
"He's been telling us mental toughness is going to pull us through in the close games," Kellum said of Vollink. "I think a big part goes to him because he's been working us hard in practice."
Huber also mentioned Vollink's workouts as a reason the Bulldogs were able to prevail in overtime in district play.
"A big thing for coach Vollink is being in shape, so I guess we wear down teams," Huber said. "At the end, we're the one in better shape so we're the one to score the goals right at the end and win the games.
"In the beginning, [the running] is real tough then it mellows down a little bit in the middle of the season. Then about postseason time, it turns right back on and it's hard running all the time. Maybe not distance, but we had a bunch of practices in the gym right before district time. We did this one where every 15 seconds of a minute is a sprint for like 30 minutes."
Notre Dame sophomore goalkeeper James Holloway said the seniors on this year's team took charge when the season threatened to turn sour. The Bulldogs dropped six consecutive games midway through the season to fall to 6-11, but the seniors told the younger players to avoid focusing on the record.
"They are always making sure we don't get too far down and worrying about records and stuff like that," Holloway said. "As long as we're playing well, it doesn't really matter. If we keep our heads up, the wins would come, and they have."
That same leadership from the seniors has helped the Bulldogs keep a level head in tight games.
"If we go down a goal, we try to keep our heads up high and try to play with confidence," Kellum said of the seniors. "The younger guys look up to us and they're doing a good job of looking up to us."
Kellum admitted there's some acting involved in that air of confidence at times. Even though he tries to appear cool and confident when the going gets tough during a game, there are times he's filled with butterflies.
"Sometimes you get nervous in games, but it's like an acting job," he said. "You've got to show them you're not nervous at all and keep playing with your head up, keep playing strong."
The Bulldogs hope that their propensity for winning close games continues at the final four. Bolivar, their semifinal opponent, went to overtime twice in the postseason, including a win on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. Notre Dame played in 10 overtime games this season while the other three teams in the final four -- Bolivar, St. Dominic and Helias -- combined for seven overtime games this season.
If one of the Bulldogs' next two games goes to extra sessions, Notre Dame coach Brad Wittenborn likes his team's chances.
"You could see it on their face that there was no panic," he said of the close games in the postseason. "They knew that if they played together as a team that they would find a way. The big difference between earlier in the year and now is they've developed that confidence, and there's no quit in them."