Before the season, one of the goals set by the JMU men’s soccer team was to make the NCAA tournament. Whether it was via an at-large bid or because they won the CAA tournament, the Dukes wanted the chance to make a name for themselves on the national stage. They’ll get that opportunity as they get set to face the No. 13 ranked High Point Panthers on Thursday.
The team celebrated its CAA title over the weekend, but when Monday came, it was time to prepare for the next challenge. JMU head coach Paul Zazenski wanted his team to be proud of what it’s achieved, but its season isn’t done by any means.
“We certainly should be proud of our accomplishment,” Zazenski said. “But all 48 teams are looking to win a national title. We have to have a mindset that we’re going into every game to win.”
After finding out their opponent on Monday and having only three days to prepare, the Dukes are doing whatever they can to get a feel of how High Point will play. One thing that’ll help is that Zazenski and the Panthers’ head coach EJ O’Keeffe are good friends, so Zazenski is familiar with how HPU will play.
“[O’Keeffe] is a good buddy of mine,” Zazenski said. “They’ve got a very hardworking group. I think they’ll be laser-focused because they’ve never made the tournament before. They’re going to have the environment, but it’ll be an awesome soccer match.”
Now that its made the big dance, JMU doesn’t want to stop there. Although it’s a good step toward national recognition, results are what turns eyes of teams across the country. Redshirt sophomore Carson Jeffris says the team goes into every match thinking they should win, and JMU wants to go as far as it can in the tournament.
“We should be a nationally recognized team,” Jeffris said. “We are a good program and have good, top-quality players. It’s just putting JMU on the map and making a statement that we are a big school and somebody that [teams] should look out for and somebody that should be talked about.”
The winner of JMU and High Point gets a date with No. 5 UNC, which defeated the Dukes 6-0 in the 2017-18 season. Despite the chance to not only get the chance to take down a national powerhouse but to get revenge for last season’s trouncing, JMU is only focusing on the Panthers. The one-match-at-a-time mentality has been something the Dukes preached all season, and it’ll carry over into the offseason.
High Point has faced some of the nation’s top teams. It fell to No. 1 Wake Forest 4-2 but defeated No. 5 Duke 1-0. The Panthers also faced Elon and lost 1-0, just as JMU did in its last regular season match.
The Panthers’ top scorer is junior forward Ilias Kosmidis, who’s scored 10 goals. Junior forward Siggi Benonysson boasts seven assists and freshman forward/midfielder Tony Pineda and junior forward/midfielder Jonathan Bolanos each have five assists. The creativity from High Point will be a tough aspect to shut down, but with redshirt sophomore goalkeeper TJ Bush having 11 shutouts to his name, the Dukes will be ready.
“This is the biggest championship in college soccer,” senior defender Thomas Shores said. “Everyone’s going to be up for it. Our end goal is to win every single game that we can.”
In any postseason tournament, leaders need to step up and take the spotlight by storm. Despite only starting three matches this season, Jeffris leads the team in goals with seven. He’s ready to take whichever role given to him but knows the starters have made it very difficult for someone to break into it.
“I like to be a leader towards the guys,” Jeffris said. “Regardless of who plays, it shouldn’t matter if I start or come off the bench. It just matters how much I impact the game and help my team win. If that means I have to come off the bench and score some goals, then I’ll do that.”
For the first time since 2014, JMU will have a chance to make noise beyond the regular season. With a chance at UNC, it’s hard to not marvel at the idea of playing in the national spotlight. Zazenski, however, hasn’t even given that possible match any thought.
“The only thing that we’re thinking about in regards to UNC is travel,” Zazenski said. “Absolutely no thought has gone into any game past High Point.”
The Dukes’ road to the national championship begins Thursday at High Point. Kick-off is set for 7 p.m.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more men’s soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.