Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill announced Wednesday that the conference will now sponsor a nine-team men’s soccer league. Three minutes later, JMU released its 2022 Sun Belt Conference (SBC) men’s soccer schedule.
JMU’s SBC schedule begins Sep. 17 and includes six weekend games, which head coach Paul Zazenski said “is most exciting about this opportunity,” along with games being featured on ESPN+ and “facing better opponents with better facilities.” The Dukes will play every SBC team — four home games and four away. JMU’s nonconference schedule hasn’t been released yet.
The new soccer league is composed of six full-Sun Belt members — Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, JMU, Marshall and Old Dominion — and three affiliates: Kentucky, WVU and South Carolina.
Marshall won the 2020-21 Division I Men’s College Cup National Championship, the only non-seeded team to win in the last 15 years. Last season, Georgia State (13-7) lost in the second round of the College Cup; Kentucky (15-2-4) in the third round; and West Virginia (12-3-6) in the quarterfinals.
“This is my 37th year in college soccer, going into my 26th season at Old Dominion, and I can say without hesitation, top to bottom, this is the most competitive conference I've ever been a part of,” Monarchs head coach Alan Dawson said. “The schedule is going to be a dogfight … I think the Sun Belt will be a magnet for the best recruits in the country; it will be an ideal place to play and showcase your talent.”
JMU finished 11-5-1 last season but didn’t qualify for the 48-team pool as an at-large bid, which it had to do amid its post-season ban from the CAA. The move to the SBC opens up an opportunity for grabbing an at-large bid that wasn’t likely in JMU’s former conference, Zazenski said.
“The addition of men’s soccer is an exciting extra piece of our agreement to join the Sun Belt,” Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne said in a statement to JMU Athletics. “We expect to have multiple programs regularly in the national rankings and multiple programs capable of winning a national championship. I fully anticipate that JMU will be among the high-achieving programs in this new conference.”
Six of the nine members were among the top 70 last season in RPI — a combined average between a team and its opponents’ winning percentages. In addition, the new conference has a combined 100 NCAA tournament appearances, with JMU being one of four teams in the last five seasons to reach the quarterfinals. Marshall is the only school since 2017 to win a men’s soccer national championship.
“We have high aspirations for what we think the conference can do on the national level,” Georgia State head coach Brett Surrency said, "and, ultimately, that'll trickle down to the individual programs as well.”
The Dukes have faced two of these new conference opponents in recent years — South Carolina as an exhibition match last August and Marshall in the 2021 season opener. JMU fell to then-defending national champions Marshall, 6-1, the largest loss Zazenski has suffered since he became JMU’s head coach.
With the nine programs coming together, the head coaches agreed: Recruitment will improve both nationally and internationally. The new conference brings together elite athletes from outside conferences including the Mid-American Conference (MAC), Conference-USA and the SEC. JMU now faces players such as C-USA co-offensive player of the year South Carolina forward Logan Frost and first team all-MAC WVU redshirt senior forward Ike Swiger as conference foes — raising not just the level of competition, but the possibilities of the future players that could sign with an SBC team.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Gill said. “Having a great big soccer conference and accomplished soccer programs, I think, shines a light on that will help everyone.”
Gill said there weren’t necessarily any obstacles in forming the league but that the timing of the announcement was delayed by the overall realignment transition beyond the Sun Belt. Once Gill identified the affiliate members he wanted in the Sun Belt, he said, they all accepted the invitation.
“To bring men’s soccer back with the quality of opponents we have, it's been perhaps a challenge in two years in light of the pandemic for a lot of new soccer programs … [I] couldn’t be more grateful to the Sun Belt [that it] shares an ambition that aligns with so many of the coaches on this call,” WVU head coach Dan Stratford said. “That they ultimately want to compete for national championships and be part of something incredibly competitive.”
With the SBC’s new influx of talent, the commissioner said the vision was simple: Form a conference that can rise among the rest in men’s soccer.
“Our expectations are really high,” Gill said. “I think this is a championship-level conference in terms of winning national championships every year … [The Sun Belt] will have a significant impact on the men’s soccer landscape.”
Contact Madison Hricik and Grant Johnson at email@example.com. For more realignment coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.