After a 1-2-1 start to the season, JMU men’s soccer needed to figure out a way to turn close matches into three points. As the season progressed, players started to develop into some of the conference’s best. Now, with the CAA tournament looming, the Dukes are in the driver’s seat to win the CAA regular season title for a second-consecutive season.
Boasting a 10-3-2 (6-1-0 CAA) record, JMU sits in first place of the conference. The team changed fortunes and is now on the winning side of those close matches. Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper TJ Bush has emerged as one of the top goalkeepers in the country, boasting nine shutouts on the year — third in the country and most in the CAA. Freshman defender Melker Anshelm has won CAA Rookie of the Week three times, and the rest of the team has been producing chances for its forwards to score, with the team averaging 12.47 shots per match.
“In terms of the level that the guys are playing at, I would say they’re playing some of the best football they’ve played all year,” head coach Paul Zazenski said. “We’re at a good level and we need to stay at that level of keeping shutouts and getting lots of chances as we go into the home stretch.”
Since the Dukes have put together a solid résumé, the possibility of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament remains plausible even if they don’t win the CAA tournament. With the No. 27 RPI in the country, matches against teams like UC-Irvine, Air Force, UNCW and NC State, who all have a top-25 RPI, have helped them climb the RPI rankings. The team’s goal, however, remains winning the conference before it focuses on anything else.
“It’s a pretty cool thing to be able to watch the teams above us and compare them to us since it affects our RPI,” Bush said. “As far as playing-wise, it doesn’t change anything. We’re still trying to win the CAA, and that hasn’t changed. We just need to take it one step at a time. We shouldn’t look at the NCAA because we have to win the CAA, first.”
JMU’s defense has been stellar all season, leading the conference with the fewest goals conceded (eight). The defense’s strength helped Bush be, statistically, a top goalkeeper in the conference and a vital component to the Dukes’ success this season, but he gives all the credit to the backline.
“The statistics show it’s just me, but it’s not me at all,” Bush said. “I see what, three shots per game? [The defense] is incredible and have had such a great year. They’ve all performed way above what they were expected to perform like. You can’t ask for more out of them.”
Instead of crediting one player as the midseason MVP, Zazenski said the defensive unit is the reason why his team has had its success. Since the defense and Bush have done a good job of holding shutouts, that helps the midfielders to create chances for the forwards to put away.
“We’ve got three really good center midfielders and a lot of good wide players that contribute to the team,” senior forward Aaron Ward-Baptiste said. “Everyone’s contributing to the team … Assists are coming from all around the field.”
The Dukes have failed to score in a match just three times this season, which ended in two defeats and one draw, showing how the importance of the forwards converting their chances. If the team can finish off attacks while the defense continues to shut down opposing players, it sets JMU up for success beyond the regular season.
The final week of the regular season is crucial for how the CAA tournament will pan out. JMU has one final non-conference match against Longwood before it has its final regular season match against Elon. A win against Elon not only seals the CAA regular season title but would mean the Dukes would host the CAA tournament.
“We’ve got to beat Elon at home for senior day,” Zazenski said. “We’ll see what happens after that.”
JMU will face Longwood at Sentara Park tonight, with kick-off at 7 p.m. Its final match is Saturday against Elon, where kick-off is scheduled for 8 p.m. with senior day festivities to occur prior to that.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more men’s soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.