By JOSH WESSLER
Peoria Journal Star
Talk about having a tough act to follow.
Imagine being in a talent show and having to go onstage after Jimi Hendrix or Richard Pryor.
Now imagine having watched their performance firsthand, seeing what kind of standards that the waiting crowd will be holding for you up to once you get onstage.
For some, the task may be too daunting. For others, the opportunity to match or exceed those expectations is too great of a challenge to pass up.
And while its situation has little to do with talent shows, the Notre Dame boys soccer team is faced with a similar challenge this fall.
And if there is any question as to whether or not the Irish are up for the challenge, well, you just haven’t been paying attention.
Coming off of a season in which it went 26-1-0, rolled to its second Class 2A state title in three years and earned a No. 4 national ranking by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, the Notre Dame program has been enjoying a level of exposure and notoriety that few prep programs ever experience.
But these are somewhat uncertain times for a program that has established its reputation on being one of the state’s best.
Left with just four returning starters thanks to a graduation that took 68 percent of the team’s scoring, the Irish were left with more questions than answers last spring.
But if there’s any uncertainty surrounding this season, you won’t find it among those within the program.
“Going into this season, one of the things that we told the boys right up front is that even though we’re a young team this year, we still have high expectations,” ND coach Mike Bare said. “So the goal, regardless of what we graduated, is still to win another state championship.”
Coming off a season in which they outscored opponents 129-15, this year’s team won’t have the same potent attack that troubled so many opposing defenses last season.
Instead, the Irish will rely on a deep and talented junior class to help fill the void while leaning on the play of four returning starters for leadership.
But while last year’s team was viewed by many as the area’s best before the matches even began, the perceived uncertainty surrounding this year’s group has given teams a sense of opportunity.
“We had a great preseason, the guys have worked really hard and they know that this year is a big year for us,” Bare said. “They know that maybe some people in the area think it’s their turn to take over our top spot and they want to work extra hard so that that’s not the case.”
Not wanting to give his team a sense that his own expectations may be less for this season, Bare once again loaded up the Irish schedule with a handful of games against nationally ranked opponents.
Basically, the Irish have other ideas for those who think that it might be curtains for their long-running act as one of the state’s premier teams.
“That’s been a motivating factor for us as well, what everybody else thinks of us,” Bare added. “I think the general perception is that we lost so much and that this is the year that Notre Dame takes a step backwards. But what we’ve been preaching is that it’s not a year to take a step backwards, it’s a year to continue to push in the right direction and move forward.
“That’s not easy to do with the class that we graduated, but I think these guys are up for the challenge.”