Jamie Clark's phone blew up this week when the NCAA announced pairings for its soccer tournament.
Clark's Washington team learned it was back in the tournament for the first time in five seasons. The Huskies drew Air Force in the first round, and a victory earned them a second-round game against … Creighton.
“I guess the soccer committee has a sense of humor,” said Clark, who was the Bluejays' coach in 2010. “Actually, three of the schools I had been at previously were among the top 16 seeds, so there was a pretty good chance we would be facing someone I was familiar with.
“The committee just made sure it was the school I was at most recently.”
Clark said shortly after the pairings were announced that he received more than 30 texts from former Creighton players or fans he had gotten to know during his seven-plus months in Omaha.
“Even though I was there only a short time, it was a good time,” Clark said. “The way people reached out after we learned we were in reinforced what coaching is all about. It's about the relationships you make, and I made some that will last a long time.”
Clark's Huskies made sure they got their coach back to Omaha with a 1-0 win against Air Force on Thursday. The team arrived in Omaha on Friday night to begin preparing for Sunday's 5 p.m. match at Morrison Stadium.
Clark welcomes the matchup, in part because of the respect he has for Creighton's program and all that it has accomplished. The Bluejays' appearance in this season's tournament is their 20th in 21 years. The only time since 1992 that Creighton missed the tournament was 2009.
The next season, with Clark at the helm, the Bluejays made it back to NCAA play. A number of the players he coached that season went on to become integral pieces in Creighton's run to the final four in 2011. Several more have become the leaders of this season's team.
“It's going to be fun to come back and see how the guys have developed,” Clark said. “Choco Gomez, Andrew Ribeiro, Brent Kallman — they're all playing a much bigger role now than when I was with them.
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“I can't wait for my team to play against those guys. I'm always telling my guys what a great program Creighton has, and now they're going to get a chance to see what I'm talking about.”
Clark and the man who succeeded him — Elmar Bolowich — downplayed the significance of Clark facing his old school. It makes for a nice pregame story, Clark said, but it will have no impact on what happens on the field.
“Our only concern is to win and move on,” Clark said. “Once the game begins, it's going to be business as usual for us.”
Bolowich compared the situation Clark is encountering to one he almost faced last season. In Bolowich's first season, the Bluejays reached the national semifinals before losing to Charlotte. A win would have put Creighton in the championship game against Bolowich's former school, North Carolina.
“At that point, I wouldn't have been too worried about North Carolina,” Bolowich said. “I would have been worried about Creighton and trying to win a national championship. I'm sure Jamie feels the same way. His focus will be on his team.
“In the knockout round, it's all about prevailing and advancing and doing everything you can to win. You can't worry about relationships you might have had or the past.”
Clark's team is 13-4-3 but has lost just once in its past 12 games. The Huskies rely heavily on their defense and goalkeeper Spencer Richey to compensate for an offense that has produced 27 goals in 20 matches.
Washington has allowed 15 goals, four coming in a mid-September loss to Brown when it was without four key defensive players.
“Spencer is as good of a goalkeeper as there is in the country,” Clark said.
Richey has 10 shutouts, including three in the Huskies' past four games. Despite a heel problem, Richey has played every minute of every match and has a 0.71 goals-against average.
Clark said Creighton fans should appreciate the kind of team he'll put on the field to face the Bluejays.
“We're tough, disciplined and gritty,” he said. “It's a team that almost has a Midwestern feel to it. We've been opportunistic and difficult to break down. I like this club.”
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