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Preview story: Benet-Notre Dame matchup starts ESCC race off with a bang

By Bill Esbrook, 09/06/23, 8:15AM CDT


The East Suburban Catholic Conference matchup between Notre Dame and Benet has traditionally happened near the end of the season.

This year, though, it’s scheduled as the first league game of the year for both teams.

The Dons and the Redwings will square off Wednesday (Sept. 6), and Notre Dame coach Mike Smith says that it might be a good thing that the sides are meeting up early.

“The team that wins will be sending a huge message to the conference,” said Smith. “Both teams are going to be looking for the positive result.”

The Dons come into the contest with an unblemished record to kick off the campaign. 

They’ve won all four matches they’ve played. Notre Dame defeated Chicago Catholic League Blue Division sides St. Ignatius 1-0 and DePaul 2-1 in nonconference matches.

The other two victories, beating North Shore Country Day 3-1 and Senn 5-1, delivered the Don/Raider Cup title on the opening weekend of the season.

That invitational was shortened from the usual three rounds to two due to extreme temperatures.

Benet, uncharacteristically, has stumbled a bit out of the gate, albeit with a tough schedule. The Redwings are 1-2-1 as they come in on their home pitch in Lisle to take on the Dons.

The win came in a 2-1 decision over South Elgin 2-1. They tied an up-and-coming Bolingbrook crew 0-0 and fell to DuPage Valley sides Waubonsie Valley (2-1) and seventh-ranked Naperville North (5-2).

Smith bears no illusions that Wednesday’s tilt will be an easy contest.

“Two years ago,” said the coach, “we won our conference for the first time by beating Benet (3-1) in the last game of the conference season.

“That was one of the highlights for our entire program history, because they’ve been top dog in our conference for a long time. They’re the team everyone wants to emulate, and we have a lot of respect for them."

Notre Dame has received its own share of esteem over the past two seasons. The Dons are two-time defending league champions the past two seasons -- they won it with an undefeated campaign in the fall of 2021 and shared it with Benet and St. Patrick last season. After three-straight regional crowns and two sectional titles in a row in Class AA, Notre Dame was moved up to the big-school division this season via the IHSA’s multiplier rule.

Benet, which was ranked 16th in the Chicagoland Soccer First 50 preseason poll, has a new head coach this year in Matt Klosterman, who was the varsity assistant coach last year, his first at Benet.

“This season has been a mixed bag so far,” wrote Klosterman. “We have had a lot of good moments and a lot to build off of. It’s a very hardworking group that is very defensively minded.

“It’s a good group this season. I think we could do very well, but this first conference game is going to be a tough test. Notre Dame had a great playoff run last year and has started this season well.

“Since last year was my first at Benet, I can’t really say how different (the match against Notre Dame) might be, but I know it is going to be difficult. We’re going to have to play really well and are looking forward to the challenge.”

Klosterman will count heavily this season on Nick Roe, his two-time Chicagoland Soccer First Team All-State defender and four-year starter, and Nick Nirtaut, who the coach mentioned was Roe’s center back partner last year.

“Nick Roe has been getting minutes in the midfield so far this year and has been working hard at the transition,” added Klosterman, “and Nick Nirtaut is still playing center back and is very tough to beat. He’s especially tough in the air.

“Both guys are captains.”

Smith said four-year varsity starters, Ryan Shanahan and Max Stalenczyk, are leading the charge for the Dons.

“Ryan is a tough kid, “said Smith. “He’s not the biggest kid but he’s not afraid to get in there, tackle and play hard. He’s got good vision and a high soccer IQ.

“Max is our tall guy in the middle. He’s 6-foot-3. He’s great in the air, and he’s another smart kid with great skills.”

Smith added that he’s “cautiously optimistic” heading into the rest of the season.

“We return a solid chunk of players from last year,” said the coach. “We’re heavy on juniors who have the experience, and in addition have some young guys we’ve pulled up.”

“We also have a nice group of returning seniors.”