MUNDELEIN — One by one, Notre Dame’s football players shook hands with one another in two separate lines, exchanged hugs, and many shed a few tears.
That was the scene moments after the Dons fell one win short of the playoffs. They had just suffered a 31-17 Week 9 road loss to East Suburban Catholic foe Carmel. It was evident this close-knit group wasn’t quite ready to move on, but they knew they had to.
“Thinking it over right now, it’s really not a matter of how we did as far as our wins and losses,” Notre Dame senior linebacker Kevin Flaherty said. “I’ve learned more here at Notre Dame than I think I could’ve learned anywhere else. It just sucks that we’re done now.
“In grade school, I came to Notre Dame football games Friday nights. It’s something that’s been a part of me my whole life, growing up and living in Norwood Park. This moment, saying goodbye to my teammates and coaches — it’s tough.”
After falling behind 7-0 on Carmel’s five-play, 81-yard opening drive, Notre Dame (4-5, 3-4) responded with an 11-play, 77-yard touchdown drive.
And when Carmel appeared ready to pull away just before halftime, Dons junior Tim Simon intercepted a pass and that led to a field goal, keeping the score within reach, 14-10, at the break.
“It’s tough to talk about at the moment, but this team had so much heart you almost couldn’t measure it,” Notre Dame senior Marco Orlandi said. “Even when our record was 2-4, we battled back to .500 to put ourselves in a position to make our final game meaningful. Carmel just got the job done in the second half.”
Dons coach Mike Hennessey saw things similarly.
“We didn’t give in, and the toughness and character our players showed these last few weeks truly exemplified what Notre Dame football is all about,” Hennessey said. “But this stings. We’d been in the playoffs eight straight seasons prior to this one, so being in this position isn’t something we’re too accustomed to.”
Senior wide receiver Billy Byrne, who made a leaping grab for a 27-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, thinks the Dons could be a team to watch in 2015.
“This team has so much experience returning,” Byrne said. “Our [junior] quarterback Tyler Tsagalis, running back Quentin Grays, three or four starting linemen. … I can’t wait to see what happens next season. The guys who were juniors here this year — they went undefeated in the regular season last year as sophomores.
“I’m gonna miss this team.”