CHESTER, PA. -- Bobby Clark and Sasho Cirovski knew they would be getting into a dogfight on Sunday when their teams faced off in the NCAA Championship game. The head coaches of Notre Dame and Maryland, respectively, have known each other for years, and know that each game is going to be competitive to the end.
In the end, though, the fine line that separated the ACC rivals at PPL Park on Sunday was perhaps even thinner than either coach suspected.
“I thought it was a very hard-fought game,” Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clark told reporters after the game. “Any team coached by [Maryland head coach] Sasho Cirovski is going to be up for the fight. It wasn’t the prettiest game; I think it’s hard to play two games of that intensity in a period of two or three days, but I thought both teams put in a good shift.”
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After a stalwart defensive performance by both teams in the early going, Maryland broke the deadlock in the 35th minute when Patrick Mullins cleaned up a scramble in front of goal, but each play of the entire sequence featured a new wrinkle of controversy.
Junior midfielder Alex Shinsky’s snap header from six yards out seemed destined for goal until it hit the arm of Notre Dame’s sophomore sensation Patrick Hodan, who was guarding the line for the Irish. MLS Referee of the Year Hilario Grajeda, who was in the middle for the title game one week after working the MLS Cup Final, didn’t call Hodan for the foul that would have resulted in a red card and a penalty for the Terps, nor did he call Mullins’ for handling the ball just before his go-ahead strike.
“Maybe you say it was two handballs,” Clark said, “and that makes it even… These things happen.”
Notre Dame also seemed to get away with a handball in the box in the 67th minute, but the Fighting Irish had their own problems to overcome. Vince Cicciarelli, the junior striker who had been the team’s workhorse in their 2-0 win over New Mexico in the semifinal, had to leave the game in the 10th minute with a broken collarbone.
It was a situation no one on the Irish sideline could have prepared for. But what might have been a disaster turned into a blessing for Notre Dame when Cicciarelli’s replacement, Leon Brown, scored the equalizer in the 40th minute.
Senior defender Andrew O’Malley put Notre Dame ahead for good in the 60th minute, rising up to meet a freekick from Harrison Shipp and head past Maryland goalkeeper Zack Steffen for a 2-1 lead. O’Malley is far from a goalscorer – Sunday’s strike was just his third in his college career – but he had a three-inch height advantage on Shinsky, who was marking him. As a matter of fact, he had a height advantage against most of the Maryland squad.
“We showed our lack of size in set pieces,” Cirovski said. “We have one player over 6-foot in the starting lineup.”
In the end, the national title game may have come down to a size disadvantage. Or to handballs. Or to a fortunate substitution. But had anything gone even slightly different for either team, Sunday’s story could have been very different.
“They made one more play than we did in this game,” Cirovski said. “We came maybe one play or two away from celebrating today.”