Despite defeat, ND boys soccer confident moving onward

Notre Dame’s Guiliano Silva is congratulated by a teammate after he scores the first goal of the game Oct. 24 during the Mercer County Tournament against Pennington at The College of New Jersey. Hal Brown photo

FROM THE MONITOR

By Rich Fisher, Contributing Editor

Dan Donigan stood under the lights at The College of New Jersey on a crisp evening in Ewing Township and said something that one might not expect to hear moments after his Notre Dame High boys soccer team absorbed one of the most crushing losses a team could ever endure.

“It’s been great coaching these guys and it’s really improved my quality of life,” Donigan said.

That quality seemed pretty dismal at the moment. The Lawrenceville-based Irish had held a 3-1 second-half lead on Pennington before dropping a 4-3, double-overtime decision on an own-goal. The game went into overtime when ND was hit with an interference call in the box with 2:42 remaining, and Pennington converted the penalty kick to tie it. Just 1:24 into the second OT, a Pennington player sent one across the box that inadvertently hit an Irish defender and ricocheted past shocked goalie Nick Wilke.

And yet, in the chilled night air of Oct. 24, Donigan talked about how life is so much better for him and his family than one year ago.

At the time, he was in the final days of coaching Rutgers in the Big 10 Conference. Donigan was growing disillusioned after having had mostly a highly successful career at St. Louis and Rutgers. He was fired when the season ended, and suddenly faced an uncertain future.

“It left a very sour taste in my mouth for coaching but having time to think about it, I love what I do,” Donigan said. “I love coaching, I’m very passionate about it. I enjoy teaching the game for what it’s worth and I enjoy teaching more than just the game.”

When the Notre Dame job became available in March, Donigan did not let ego get in the way. He had no qualms going from one of the premiere college soccer conference’s in the nation to coaching high school kids. He threw his heart into revitalizing Notre Dame, which nearly halted Pennington’s streak of MCT titles that has reached five straight.   

“Dan’s really changed the program,” said Wilke, who was outstanding against Pennington. “Practices are a lot harder. We get in the weight room at least three times a week. We’re always stretching. He’s changed this program into a winning program. We trust him completely, that if he puts someone out there, they’re gonna get the job done.”

Because of that, the Irish won the Colonial Valley Conference Colonial Division title, and carry a 16-3 record into their Nov. 1 NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A tournament opener against St. Joe’s of Metuchen. But wins and losses are not all that Donigan returned to coaching for.

“These kids are still very vulnerable and very impressionable so I’d like to think we can bring a lot to them off the field too,” he said. “They’re at a very crucial stage in their life where they’re getting ready to take a big step. My hat’s off to the people at Notre Dame for giving me the opportunity and hat’s off to these kids. This group of (16) seniors is fantastic. I love them in all senses of the word. It’s been that enjoyable. I just try to stay out of their way.”

But they needed their coach’s encouragement after the heart-breaking MCT defeat.

ND took a 1-0 lead on Giuliano Silva’s goal 20 minutes into play, only to see the Red Raiders tie it with 4:45 left in the half.

With Pennington starting to pressure, the Irish came up huge at the end of the half as Eli Thomas scored with 2:38 remaining and Chris O’Neill tallied just 1:10 later to make it 3-1 at halftime.

Pennington used a huge second-half push to defeat Allentown in the semifinals and did the same thing against ND. The Raiders got one back early in the half and Notre Dame then got some breaks when Pennington hit the post with 19:35 left and hit the crossbar with 9:50 remaining.

But the Irish could not survive the penalty kick and the match went overtime. In the first OT Wilke was outstanding, making a diving save on one shot and a leaping save on another.

But there was nothing he could do on the fluke play that ended it.

“I was stunned,” Wilke said. “But it’s just one of those plays, there’s nothing you can do.”

Donigan, who has seen it all through a 30-year coaching career, felt for his player.

“It’s disheartening to have a game end the way that it did, that hangs with guys,” he said. “You can’t say anything to him, it’s just unfortunate. That could happen to anybody on the field. He played a dynamite game, he’s a fantastic kid, a fantastic player. He’s got the biggest heart, the most grit. I love him, I can’t say enough about him. Those things happen in a player’s career, you just hope it never happens to you or it doesn’t happen more than once. But it happens.”

Despite the setback, Notre Dame proved itself capable of playing with extremely high competition, as Pennington fields players from around the world. The Irish were already talking about the states.

“Even though we lost, we played a heck of a game,” Wilke said. “It showed how much character and how much resilience we have with this team. When they came back in the first half, we could have just gave up, but we kept going. I’m so proud of us.

“We have a lot of confidence going into states after this. To go out there and compete very good against a team like that gives us a lot of confidence. I know we have to get over the loss but we’re gonna come back strong.”

Donigan is somewhat worried about his team’s health. ND lost defender Gianluca Pozzo to a season-ending injury in a semifinal win over Princeton, and center-back James Watson left in the first half against Pennington and did not return.

“We’ve gotta get healthy with the players, this game and the semifinals took its toll on us,” Donigan said. “Watson is an impact guy, so for him to go off the field is concerning. We’re a little thinner, but hey, guys gotta step up and you just move on. We’ve got bigger games ahead of us in the state tournament so our focus has to be to leave this game and move on.

“Every game I get more and more confidence in not just the team overall but individual players too. I see more and more from every guy every game.”

And he let the players know just how he felt in the post-game huddle, moments after their heartbreak.

“I told them,” Donigan said, “if I had any team to walk out of this stadium with, it would be Notre Dame.”

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