For a second-consecutive season, JMU men’s soccer won the CAA regular-season title, giving the Dukes home-field advantage for the CAA postseason tournament. While last season didn’t go as planned when JMU crashed out in the semifinals, this year has a new feeling. The team knows that regular-season awards are nice, but the job is nowhere near complete.
It took some luck for JMU to retain the regular season title. On Oct. 30, UNCW traveled to Northeastern in a game in which UNCW needed a win or draw to take the CAA crown. The Huskies came to the Dukes’ rescue and won 1-0. Although that meant JMU was the champion, the result let the team know one thing: No matter what seed a team is, it can claim the title. The goal remains the same for JMU, and that’s an NCAA tournament bid.
“We have to look towards winning two games in our conference tournament,” head coach Paul Zazenski said. “Those are the only games that matter. We play in a tough conference, so it’s nice to get some hardware and accolades, but everybody that’s in the tournament is starting with a 0-0 record and competing for the same prize.”
JMU hasn’t won the CAA tournament since 2014, when it lifted the trophy as the No. 6 seed. Redshirt senior midfielder/forward Billy Metzler was on the 2014 championship team, and while it didn’t succeed in the regular season, it taught him that teams need to give it their all for the entirety of the match if they want to lift the trophy at the end.
“I feel like this team has the drive and quality to get there,” Metzler said. “I think it’s a matter of focus and effort and not letting up on teams.”
Although the team doesn’t focus on regular season accolades, awards give players the confidence that they can achieve the goals they set in the preseason. Now that it’s win or go home, that belief is necessary for JMU to dance their way to CAA glory.
“I think we’re at a high right now,” redshirt sophomore forward Carson Jeffris said. “We’re going into practices very confident that we can potentially win the CAA.”
The team that knocked JMU out in the semifinals last season was in-state rival William & Mary, who went on to win the CAA tournament. For a rival to celebrate on JMU’s field, the teamwas left wanting revenge.
“Last year, it was a well-fought battle and certain things didn’t bounce our way,” Metzler said. “We want another even matchup and really take it to them and show who, on the day, is the better team.”
The Tribe will come to Sentara Park ready with weapons on Friday. As the No. 5 seed, William & Mary boasts senior forward Ryder Bell, who has five goals, and senior midfielder/forward Antonio Bustamante, who’s notched four goals and seven assists.
This year, the rematch is set as the two rivals will square off in the semifinals. The winner will face the winner of the UNCW-Hofstra match. The Seahawks are currently No. 13 in the nation and defeated JMU 2-0 earlier this season, but with the tournament being held in Harrisonburg, the potential rematch could go either way.
“I think the comfortability of guys is going to be better,” Metzler said. “In North Carolina, everyone was on edge being in a different environment. We’ve done really well playing [at] home, and I think everyone will be more comfortable on the ball and things will just click.”
JMU will be ready for any team it comes across. Senior forward Aaron Ward-Baptiste and junior midfielder Manuel Ferriol have five goals and four assists apiece, Jeffris has a team-high six goals and redshirt sophomore goalkeeper TJ Bush is second in the country in shutouts with 10.
“The future is bright,” Zazenski said. “We continue to get results in a tough conference. Our biggest thing is making sure we cap off a good regular season with a championship in the tournament. As nice as it’s been to be back-to-back regular season champions, we want to get to the NCAA tournament.”
The Dukes’ quest for an NCAA tournament berth begins Friday at Sentara Park, with kickoff set for 7 p.m. The championship match is Sunday at 1 p.m.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.