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Fighting Irish balance focus and fun as team prepares for Camping World Bowl

By Zach Seifter, Florida Citrus Sports

ORLANDO, Fla. — One year removed from a perfect regular season and a berth in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Notre Dame enters the 2019 postseason as one of the nation’s best teams once again.

The 15th-ranked Fighting Irish come into Saturday’s Camping World Bowl against Iowa State at 10-2, giving them a double-digit win total for the third straight season for the first time since 1991-93. But if you think Notre Dame is content with simply getting to 10 wins, think again. This week is a business trip, even if the players are still making time for a little — or a lot — of fun.

“We’re just kind of excited to be with each other, so we don’t really feel sluggish coming into the game,” Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet said Thursday before the start of Camping World Bowl Day for Kids. “We feel like we’re ready to go, and we want to play in this game.”

Taking the field with a sense of purpose will be a key to victory on Saturday. And bonding is a part of that.

Already this week, head coach Brian Kelly announced (with an assist from Santa) that two Irish players, running back Mick Assaf and offensive lineman Colin Grunhard, have received scholarships, eliciting a rousing celebration from the team. The team also enjoyed a welcome party on Monday and paid a visit to Universal Studios on Tuesday afternoon.

There was more noise on Thursday morning, too.

The annual Day for Kids event, at Andretti Indoor Karting & Games, allowed players from both Notre Dame and Iowa State to bring out their inner child as they ran around a huge arcade, spending time with kids from the West Lakes area of Orlando, in the shadow of Camping World Stadium. There were huge lines for go-karts and laser tag. Players let out laughs while striking pucks in air hockey. They fired shots in Space Invaders with focused looks on their faces. They lined up shots in arcade basketball games.

But most importantly, they had fun with the kids, and each other.

“You know every time we go to practice, [every] time we go to meetings, we’re trying to be locked in, everyone’s locked in,” Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman said. “But, you know, once that stuff finishes, we focus on relaxing, hanging out with the guys, get opportunities like this.”

So this week has brought a different experience, and in some ways a unique one. Saturday’s matchup kicks off at noon — the earliest start to a Notre Dame game all season.

Maybe it’s not for a title. But it is for an 11-2 final record, and perhaps much more than that.