msoccer

Redshirt freshman defender Josiah Blanton defends against South Carolina.

JMU men’s soccer has seen success over the past few years, winning three consecutive CAA Championships and coming one win away from making the 2018 College Cup. That success starts on the defensive end of the field. 

“I think the tone of the game is started on defending and how many goals you give up,” head coach Paul Zazenski said. “Some of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of — as a player and as a coach — have been able to keep the ball out of the net at a high rate, so it’s vital to setting the tone and identity of your group, and it’s something that we’ve been fortunate to be pretty good at.”

Over the last three seasons, JMU allowed only 39 goals in 53 matches. In the spring 2021 season, the Dukes yielded four goals in their nine matches, shutting out six teams. Redshirt junior defender Tyler Clegg, who was named CAA Defensive Player of the Week for the week of Sept. 6-12, said being consistent defensively is a challenge.

“It takes a lot of focus and the whole team buying into the same kind of factors,” Clegg said. “We can’t have any lapses in concentration across the back line … You can’t have one guy off on his own, doing his own thing — it’s everyone working together.”

Zazenski said a great defense doesn’t come together overnight — it takes weeks and months of hard work. He said he recruits players to JMU who already have a high defensive IQ, but the Dukes also talk about defense and try to instill that elite mindset in the players when they arrive in Harrisonburg as well.

Zazenski said players might be able to “run through a brick wall,” but he added that physical prowess isn’t enough to be great. Conditioning and the ability to get to 50-50 balls, Zazenski said, are crucial factors for defenders.

“The training environment that we create and that kind of hard-nose, workmanlike atmosphere ...  is vital,” Zazenski said. “But then you’ve got to have players that can execute, and I think the talent and the level of the player has to be there as well.” 

When the defense makes a stop, offensive counterattacks can start. Even though JMU doesn’t score much — only 11 goals in nine matches during the shortened spring 2021 campaign — redshirt junior defender and CAA Preseason Defender of the Year Melker Anshelm said the Dukes’ defense kickstarts the offense.

“Most of the defenders are the ones setting up the play and the tone and the tempo with the ball and therefore opening up space for the attacking players,” Anshelm said.

During JMU’s recent seasons, the Dukes have had veterans on the back line. This year, Anshelm and Clegg are the experienced players, along with redshirt senior goalkeeper Alex DeSatnick and freshmen defenders Josiah Blanton and Yanis Lelin taking on increased roles. 

“The speed of the game at the collegiate level is a lot faster than at the youth level, so having some experience … is important,” Clegg said. “But, it’s also good to have some younger guys come in and learn that so they can, at one point, become experienced veterans themselves.”

Throughout the years, JMU’s defense has seen elite players come and go. Prior to this season, the Dukes lost goalkeeper TJ Bush and defender Tom Judge — both of whom have signed professional contracts. Despite those absences, JMU maintains its defensive intensity because of, as Clegg put it, a “next man up” mentality.

Zazenski said the presence of the past Dukes is still apparent in the locker room.

“We try to make sure the guys know that those players paved the groundwork for success and future success,” Zazenski said. “We provide extra motivation and resources in our current players to understand why guys like TJ Bush, Thomas Shores, Tom Judge and a laundry list of other players have had success in a JMU uniform.”

The Dukes hope to keep that elite level of defense this year and make it four consecutive CAA Championships. After giving up six goals in the season-opening loss to No. 1 and defending champion Marshall on Aug. 26, JMU’s allowed only one goal during its last four matches — all victories. 

“We’re definitely getting better; it was kind of like a hitch early in the season conceding six goals to Marshall, but I think we’ve bounced back,” Anshelm said. “We have a very good team and we’re working on it — it’s a process, and we’re definitely getting there.”

Contact Joshua Gingrich at gingrihj@dukes.jmu.edu. For more soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.