In a season that’s exceeded all expectations, JMU men’s soccer now knows it’s one of the best teams in the country. It conquered High Point, upset No. 5 UNC, ran away from No. 12 Virginia Tech and now is just one match away from reaching its first College Cup in program history.
From winning the CAA regular season and tournament titles, to making the Elite 8, head coach Paul Zazenski has had a more-than-amazing first season as head coach. The experiences from the regular season are now paying off in the postseason as the Dukes dance through the NCAA tournament.
It’s easy to label JMU as a “Cinderella story.” A mid-major school that’s taken down some of the nation’s elite fits right into the mold of an underdog story, but Zazenski thinks his team has been one of the best in the nation for a while.
“I probably would’ve felt we were one of the best teams in the country had we lost in the conference tournament,” Zazenski said. “Ultimately, we’ve been a really good team for the past two years. This year we’ve capped it off with a few more impactful wins, and here we are.”
The Dukes have won 15 matches this season, their most since 2004. Players like junior midfielder Manuel Ferriol, who leads the team in goals and assists, senior forward Aaron Ward-Baptiste, who has seven goals and five assists, and redshirt sophomore goalkeeper TJ Bush are all key components in the team’s success in terms of stats. Junior midfielder Fernando Casero and the entire defense are unsung heroes as they anchor the team’s defense, something that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.
All season long, the team has emphasized the importance of focusing on one match at a time. Its original goal was to win the conference and go from there, and now that JMU has achieved that and gone far into the NCAA tournament, redshirt sophomore forward Carson Jeffris can’t help but smile at what the Dukes have done.
“Our goal was set to win the CAA and the fact that we’ve won that and are accomplishing even more than what we set out is just amazing,” Jeffris said. “It’s a surreal feeling and I’m just glad to be a part of it and contribute day in and day out.”
Jeffris, who scored against No. 12 Virginia Tech, has eight goals this season despite only starting four matches. He says no matter where Zazenski puts him, he’ll do whatever it takes to help JMU win.
For the Dukes to shock one of the most storied programs in the country in UNC, it gave them confidence that they can beat anyone in the country. Bush, however, says the team plays with an underdog mindset no matter what, and that JMU strives for perfection in every aspect.
“We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder all the time,” Bush said. “We think the sky is the limit for us, we don’t think we can ever play well enough. We’ll remember the moments where we do stuff wrong more than when we do stuff right.”
For the first time since 1995, JMU has made the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. It hasn’t gone beyond that point, but in terms of recent history, the Dukes are entering unfamiliar territory and don’t want to stop fighting.
Since the Elite 8 appearance in 1995, JMU had only won one tournament match prior to this season despite making it six times. Now that they’re preparing to win and make it to the College Cup, the Dukes are setting a standard for future teams to reach.
“A lot of guys on the team go in with a mindset that we have nothing to lose,” Bush said. “Now there is something to lose because we’ve come this far. We don’t want the season to be over now, we want to accomplish everything that we possibly can.”
To reach this point of the postseason, teams need the quality aspect of soccer and a little bit of luck. JMU got that luck in the Round of 16 match against No. 12 Virginia Tech when a defensive clearance by the Hokies went into their own net, putting the Dukes ahead. There’s also a sense of superstition as JMU watches the “Rocky” movies before each postseason match.
“We’ve been watching every ‘Rocky’ movie to get the guys pumped up,” Jeffris said. “That’s been helping us a little bit.”
Like Rocky Balboa, the Dukes fight through every match with all they have. In their upcoming quarterfinal match against Michigan State, they’ll have the luxury of Ferriol, who’s returning from a red card suspension.
This season has been one to remember for JMU. A lot of teams would be content with winning their conference and making it to the NCAA tournament, but Zazenski says the Dukes’ postseason is unfinished.
“We can compete with anyone in the country,” Zazenski said. “We have the mindset that we can beat anyone on any given night.”
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.