By IVES GALARCEP
When the NCAA Tournament selection show took place on Monday, there were plenty of nervous faces staring at computer screens across the country. Dillon Powers wasn’t one of those. He didn’t have to worry, not as the captain of Notre Dame, the newly-crowned Big East champions.
How things have changed in just one year.
In 2011, Powers and Notre Dame were left out of the NCAA Tournament, the painful punishment for ending their season with consecutive losses, including a first-round loss in the Big East Tournament. There would be no NCAA Tournament then, no chance for Powers to showcase his talents, no chance to try and make a run at a national title.
“It was one of the greatest disappointments of my career because it wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” Powers said of missing the 2011 NCAA Tournament. “We always kind of took for granted that we were going to be there.
“I don’t want to say it was a great thing, because it wasn’t, but we learned a lot from that,” Powers said. “We learned a lot from that and we haven’t taken any games for granted this year.”
The Fighting Irish have played like a team carrying the scar of last year’s disappointment, rolling to a strong regular season and last Sunday lifting the Big East title. As Notre Dame heads into the weekend, the Fighting Irish will begin their NCAA Tournament as the No. overall seed, and one of the favorites to win it all. Their quest begins on Sunday against Michigan State.
For Powers, the tournament will be a chance to cap a dream season that has seen him comeback from two pain-field seasons and enjoy an outstanding senior season some two years after turning down a chance to sign a Generation adidas contract and play in MLS.
If the name Dillon Powers sounds familiar to you, and you’re not a regular follower of college soccer, you might remember him as one of the standouts on the U.S. Under-20 national team as it prepared for qualifying for the 2011 Under-20 World Cup. Powers impressed scouts with his playmaking ability and Major League Soccer made a hard push to try and sign Powers after his sophomore season. SBI had him ranked as one of the top prospects heading into the 2011 MLS Draft if Powers chose to leave school early.
Powers passed on the contract offer, and decided to stay in school. it is a decision he does not regret two years later even though his junior season was one beset by injuries. He played through pain through his sophomore and junior campaigns, dealing with a knee ailment as well as groin pain he was finally able to alleviate last summer after having surgery.
“I’m feeling better than I have in about two or three years,” Powers said. “I’m not a totally different player but I feel like I can do a lot of things that I was restricted from doing in the past couple of years.
“It’s a lot more enjoyable to play when you’re not carrying an injury.”
Powers has enjoyed an outstanding senior season and has returned to the top form that made him such a highly-regarded prospect two seasons ago. His work in midfield as a box-to-box player capable of dominating play and picking out dangerous passes has helped the Fighting Irish enjoy a successful campaign in the stacked Big East.
“He’s always been a good player, but he’s been a dominant player for us this year,” said Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clarke. “It really makes a difference not to be playing in pain. I don’t think a day went back last year when he didn’t have to see the trainer and spend time in the training room.
“He’s a player who loves to play and I just don’t think he let his body rest enough,” Clarke said. “I think he was playing in pain but he would just keep playing.”
Powers has made the most of his decision to stay in school for all four years. He is set to graduate from Notre Dame in December, and he has also been able to serve as the team’s senior captain this year. Powers was also able to add a Big East championship to his resume, and now he and the Fighting Irish head into the NCAA Tournaments as one of the big favorites to win it all. He will also head into the 2013 MLS Draft as a projected first-round pick, and should be one of the first seniors taken off the board.
“When it comes to deciding between going pro and staying in school I think the key is not to question whether you made the right decision, it’s about making your decision the right one,” Powers said. “There is no cookie-cutter mold for how you’re going to succeed in your career. You can go pro and be lucky enough to play right away, but you can also go pro and not play at all.
“For me it’s been the right decision (to stay),” Powers said. “I’m in a position to win a championship, I’m surrounded by good players and I’m going to graduate, so there are no regrets.”
Powers and Notre Dame have one more mission to accomplish, winning a national title. It would serve as the perfect ending considering how last year’s season ended for them.
“This year’s been special because I think we’ve learned from the shortcomings of the past few years,” Powers said. “I’ve always felt we had a good team, but I think we’ve underachieved when it’s mattered most.
“This year I’ve learned from the pain of losing and that gives you a mental toughness, and most importantly it gives you a chip on their shoulder,” Powers said. “Everyone’s motivated and everyone feels like we have something to prove every time.”