Connor Klekota is usually smiling. Well, he’s got a really good reason to be happy right now.
The sophomore played all but 19 minutes during Notre Dame’s tournament run to the Division I national championship, which culminated with a 2-1 win over Maryland in the College Cup final Dec. 15.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” said Klekota, an Amherst High grad. “I have a reputation from back home and here of being a happy kid. This is by far the happiest I’ve been in my life. It was absolutely incredible.”
The title game almost went a different way. Notre Dame was whistled for a handball in the 88th minute, giving Patrick Mullins — the nation’s leading scorer with 19 goals — a penalty kick to tie the game. He sailed it wide and in that moment Klekota said the Fighting Irish could taste the title.
“We were just clock watching for two straight minutes,” Klekota said. “It couldn’t go any slower.”
Klekota contributed one assist during the tournament run. That came in a 4-0 win over Wisconsin in the second round Nov. 24. It was also the only game he didn’t play all 90 minutes.
The Fighting Irish finished 17-1-6 and Klekota appeared in all 24 games. He scored one goal and had three assists. He didn’t make his first start until 10 games into the season against Virginia Tech on Oct. 11, but he then started the final 14 at midfield.
He got his opportunity to start because Nick Beasler suffered an injury. While Klekota appreciated the opportunity to start, he credits Beasler and fellow midfielder Robby Gallegos for the competition they provided in practice.
“Our spots are never guaranteed,” Klekota said. “The competition helped me grow as a player.”
Klekota scored the first goal of his career on the road against Wake Forrest on Nov. 2. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. The score put the Fighting Irish up 3-1 in the 68th minute and turned out to be the final score.
The win moved Notre Dame into a tie for first in the Atlantic Coast Conference with Maryland with one league match remaining.
“That was a really cool moment especially because it was against Wake Forrest,” Klekota said. “We had been hearing the whole time how they have a sweet crowd. Their stadium was packed and their students were super loud. It was a really good atmosphere.”
Klekota will have to fight again next year to maintain his regular standing in Notre Dame’s starting lineup as Beasler and Gallegos are returning. He said a focus for him this offseason will be his acceleration and speed over 10 yards so he can close in on attackers and catch them from behind.
Klekota hasn’t declared a major yet, but is leaning toward management, consulting or marketing as a student in the business school. What he really wants to do, though, is make it in the big leagues.
If he can’t, he’s always dreamed of coaching college or professional soccer.
“It’s been one of my goals for a long time,” Klekota said. “It’s something I think I could be good at … I think I could enjoy.”
If that doesn’t work out, he plans to stay around the game in some capacity.