When the clock ticked down to zero and JMU men’s soccer’s season came to an end against Michigan State, there was a different feeling than previous seasons. The Dukes had earned national attention and danced to the Elite Eight, falling just short of a College Cup bid.
First to fall was High Point. Then, JMU shocked No. 5 UNC and No. 12 Virginia Tech. The impressive play from the Dukes turned questions of how they got to that point into how far they could go. Despite losing 2-1 to Michigan State in the quarterfinals — a game where JMU held a 1-0 lead — the standard has been set for the program.
After a strong campaign in 2018, this past spring was a reality check. An Elite Eight appearance isn’t enough for them — they want the grand prize of college soccer. When they began practice in the winter, they found themselves working hard for more.
That came with a price.
“It was a very hard spring; it was probably one of the hardest I’ve ever been apart of,” redshirt junior forward Carson Jeffris said. “I think that really gave us a sense of what it was going to be like to maintain our current status of a top-tier program. I think the guys realized going into summer that we’re going to have to bust our butts to make sure we’re ready in the fall to compete.”
The spring season for collegiate soccer is there to help teams work through certain aspects of the game, such as positional battles, placing players in different areas of the pitch and maintaining match fitness. With the recent success of the program, an emphasis has been placed on proper preparation, and that starts with continued success into the preseason.
“To be honest, some of the guys struggled because they wanted to be so good in the spring,” Zazenski said. “They’d be pressing and doing things they normally wouldn’t, so I think it’s a little bit of buying into what got us there in the first place and replicating that, and then doing it with a new set of players and a new team. It’s going to be a completely different team.”
JMU’s in good hands going into the 2019 regular season. With Zazenski entering his second season as head coach and numerous key players from the 2018 campaign returning, the Dukes have the components for another successful year.
Jeffris, who had eight goals and four assists in 2018, played for GPS Portland Phoenix in the USL League Two. He scored five goals and played alongside JMU teammate redshirt junior goalkeeper TJ Bush, who posted an .829 save percentage in seven matches.
The Dukes’ leading scorer from last season, senior midfielder Manuel Ferriol, also appeared in the USL League Two. Showcasing for the Long Island Rough Riders, the Spaniard had five goals and four assists.
Even with successful play in the summer, JMU enters the 2019 season a likely preseason CAA favorite. When it won the CAA regular-season title in 2017 and failed to win the CAA tournament, the team felt they still hadn’t achieved its ultimate goal. Now, as they sit atop the conference having a deep postseason run to their name, their opponents will likely circle JMU on their calendars.
“We have a target on our back now, which is something that we haven’t had before,” Bush said. “Going into the NCAA tournament, everyone was like, ‘Who’s JMU?’ and not taking us seriously, but now, I think the roles have changed a little bit. We still think of ourselves as the underdog, but really, that’s not necessarily the case anymore.”
With a few weeks remaining until the Dukes travel to Florida to open the season against Florida Atlantic, the 2019 season is important to the men’s soccer program. The spring season posed tough questions, but with a veteran presence in the locker room and a winning mentality, JMU is primed to be in the midst of NCAA title contention come fall.
“It starts with being CAA champions once again,” Zazenski said. “That should always be our first goal.”
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.