Five years ago when Notre Dame won its first national championship on a chilly day in Chester at Talen Energy Stadium, two local high school kids were in the stands dreaming of their future.
They didn’t know each other yet, but Patrick Berneski and Senan Farrelly would end up becoming starting center backs for the same program they witnessed capturing a championship that December afternoon.
“That was when I decided that Notre Dame was my dream school,” said Farrelly, who was a high school sophomore at the time playing for Continental FC.
Berneski, a Philadelphia Union Academy defender in his senior year at Central Bucks South, had already committed to Notre Dame, where he’s in his fifth year with the program.
“It was definitely a special moment,” Berneski said of the game. “But when I was there I guess I didn’t really appreciate how significant that kind of feat was. Not making it past the Sweet 16 the last four years you can definitely really appreciate how much work and dedication it takes to get to that stage.”
The game-winning goal that day ended up being scored by another Irish center back from the Philly area, West Chester native and Salesianum School grad Andrew O’Malley. He headed home a set piece from Harry Shipp, past another area native, Zack Steffen, to secure the 2-1 lead and eventual win for Notre Dame over Maryland.
Fast forward to 2018 and it’s a completely different Irish team coached by first-year head coach Chad Riley — who took over the program from coaching legend Bobby Clark — aiming to repeat history.
Berneski, who has used his large frame to his advantage on set pieces with six goals this season (tied for the team lead), and Farrelly, a smooth operator playing the ball out of the back, have played a big role in leading the Irish back to this stage, this time as the only ACC team left in the tournament.
Indiana, one of three Big 10 teams left in the field, stands in the way of a return trip to the College Cup, being played in Santa Barbara this year. A familiar foe, Notre Dame schedules the Hoosiers every spring and regular season and they often compete for recruits.
“It’s definitely a very intense rivalry playing them twice a year but I don’t think there is anyone we’d rather play to get to the final four,” Berneski said. “I think the only other rivalry that compares is Virginia and we already knocked them off so knocking off Indiana would be awesome.”
Though they played on rival youth clubs — Berneski for the Union and Farrelly for Continental FC — their age difference meant they never faced each other in their Development Academy days.
Berneski took a redshirt year his first season and graduated in May while Farrelly is in his third year. Both had to wait their time behind former upperclassmen starters Brandon Aubrey and Matt Habrowski but it was pairing together in training and in spring games that their partnership started to form.
This season they’ve anchored a back line that has conceded just 19 times in 20 games in arguably the toughest conference top to bottom in the country and held opponents scoreless through their first two tournament games, both overtime contests.
“The Philadelphia aspect makes us better friends off the field and better partners off the field, which I think is important for maintaining your on field connections as well,” Farrelly said.
At times this season, West Chester native Aiden McFadden has joined them on the back line playing outside back. The former Penn Fusion Academy star has been a solid contributor in his second season in South Bend starting half of the team’s games this season and has three goals and an assist on the year.
Together the Philly-area trio is keeping alive a tradition at the program dating back to O’Malley’s freshman year in 2010 (Lumberton, N.J. native Ryan Finley was there in 2011-2012) and will continue with Michael Pellegrino, a Philadelphia Union Academy midfielder from Wenonah, N.J.
For Berneski, this postseason run is one last chance to be part of another Irish title celebration as a player instead of a recruit before pursuing a professional career.
“Ultimate goal is definitely to play professional soccer and I guess right now the best way for me to do that is to help our team get as far as we can,” Berneski said.
Indiana, the highest seed left in the field after No. 1 Wake Forest was upended by Akron, hosts Notre Dame at 7 p.m. tonight in a game that will be broadcast on BTN Plus.
Union Academy grads Kalil ElMedkhar and Sebastian Elney will face off in a quarterfinal between Kentucky and Maryland at 6 p.m. tonight while Union Academy grads Morgan Hackworth and Andrew Aprahamian will be on opposite sides in a showdown at 9 p.m. between Akron and Stanford, which also has York, Pa. native Ryan Ludwick regularly in the lineup.
James Madison plays Michigan State in the other quarterfinal tomorrow at 5 p.m while the College Cup will be played December 7 and 9.