With every new season, collegiate teams have to deal with roster turnover. While the number of players a team has to replace varies, it can be a difficult task for coaches to be able to facilitate a smooth transition from a graduating senior class to an incoming freshman class.
JMU men’s soccer head coach Paul Zazenski knows the ins and outs of recruiting. He’s aware of the time it takes for many of his new players to adjust to collegiate soccer. After losing four key players in last year’s 2018 Men’s College Cup quarterfinals team, the importance of getting the freshman class to adjust quickly increased — especially if the Dukes hope to go beyond its success last season.
Luckily for JMU, freshman forward Dennis Mensah and freshman midfielder Clay Obara are two newcomers who’ve cemented their spots in the rotation and play a key role in the Dukes’ early-season success.
Although it took a few matches to get fully acclimated to Division-I soccer, both Mensah and Obara found a breakthrough. Obara’s came in JMU’s CAA opener against Hofstra, where a 75th-minute goal broke the deadlock and earned him his first goal as a college player. Eight days later, Mensah notched a hat trick in less than 10 minutes against Elon. Both goals helped in JMU’s current seven-match winning streak, but they also showed the freshmen are ready to compete.
“All of them are great, hard-working guys,” Zazenski said. “When we recruit, we really want to bring in good people, and that’s what stands out about the incoming class we have, freshman-wise. They’re just very good guys to be around; they’re very good teammates and just want to win.”
Obara and Mensah are the only freshmen to have found the back of the net, but others have given quality minutes to Zazenski’s team. Defender Prince Loney-Bailey has appeared in seven matches, midfielder Evan Paez has given a boost from the bench in six appearances and midfielder Ethan Del Hierro has seen action in two CAA contests.
Zazenski says it takes time for each player to adjust, no matter the circumstances. However, Obara praises the veterans and their willingness to help adjust his game to the college level.
“Every training session, they’re always talking to us, taking us to the side and working on little things,” Obara said. “In the game, it’s the same thing. They’re always telling us what to do better, and what we do well, they give us our praise.”
Mensah says that not only do the veterans give advice on the pitch, they help the college newcomers off the field as well. One of the hardest parts, he says, was adjusting to an early-morning routine that calls for him to wake up at around 6 a.m. — two hours earlier than he did in high school.
Mensah’s role on the team came at an important time for JMU. Former forward Aaron Ward-Baptiste — who posted seven goals and five assists in 2018 — graduated, and redshirt junior forward Carson Jeffris has been sidelined with an injury, leaving an opening at the center-forward spot.
As the team’s No. 9, Mensah wishes to do one thing — help his team get in the best position to succeed. In soccer, the No. 9 is given to a goal-scoring forward or a central attacker who plays a key part in a team’s attack.
“As the No. 9, we score goals, and it gives me a lot of confidence,” Mensah said. “I want to score every game, and if I don’t score, I want to help the team play well and get the W.”
Mensah aims to replicate the style of Arsenal and Gabon striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who uses rapid pace and clinical finishing to give fits to opposing defenders. Aubameyang is currently third in scoring in the Premier League with seven goals.
Zazenski, however, says the No. 9 is just a number to the team. For the Dukes, no matter the number they dawn on game day, it’s about finding ways they can contribute to a successful season. While Obara’s No. 16 was assigned to him, he hopes to make a name for himself.
Despite a perfect September, a daunting October is next for JMU men’s soccer. It has six away matches — one of which is against current No. 1 Virginia — and just two home matches. The difficult schedule will test the young Dukes in their early careers, but the adversity will help them in their development and help the entire team improve before postseason play.
“We’re trying to score earlier because recently, a lot of our goals are coming in the second half,” Obara said. “Some games, even if we’re controlling the game, if we can just put a couple away early, we can even close the game off earlier or just rack up the goals and really get our confidence going.”
The freshmen have already carved their roles. More may follow suit and begin to cement their places as the season moves on, and some might even have to wait until the spring for their opportunity. However, Zazenski knows his players will embrace the roles they take and contribute their effort to help the team however they can.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.