It’s been nearly two months since JMU men’s soccer danced its way to the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament Elite Eight and was minutes away from reaching the College Cup for the first time in school history. Since then, the team has had time to reflect on its accomplishments made in its historic season.
Last season, the Dukes went 15-5-3 (6-2-0 CAA) and won the CAA regular season and tournament. They beat No. 5 UNC and No. 12 Virginia Tech on the way to an Elite Eight appearance, a feat some programs can only dream of achieving. For head coach Paul Zazenski, he knew all along what his team was capable of.
In his first season as head coach, Zazenski was named CAA Coach of the Year. It may have been a whirlwind of a season, but now the team and staff have to focus on what to do next.
“We finished up the year, we’re sitting in the office with tons of work, going, ‘What’s the next step for our program?’” Zazenski said. “Where we got to might never happen again, so we’ve got to put things in perspective about the success of last season, but we’ve also got to say, ‘That was a good feeling, let’s make it happen again.’”
Before 2018, JMU made the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals twice: 1994 and 1995. Since then, the Dukes’ best postseason finish was in 2011, when they made the Sweet 16.
Now that it’s time to gear up for the 2019 spring season, Zazenski wants the team to carry over the momentum it created. What’s important to JMU is that it remembers why it made the run, and that’s the team’s discipline, dedication and togetherness of the squad.
“You’re always around the same people and being put into situations that are competitive and have lots of emotion,” Zazenski said. “It’s hard to always stick together in those moments, and I think that’s what our group did really well. When we were on the road in tight games, they were very much a unit.”
After a 1-2-1 start to the season, which included a three-game winless streak, JMU went 14-3-2 for the rest of the year. Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper TJ Bush finished tied for No. 3 in the nation in shutouts with 13 and JMU ranked sixth in goals-against average with 0.541.
“Now I think everyone’s looking for more,” Bush said. “We know that we can get there and we know we can do anything and get as far as possible.”
The saying “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” describes what the Dukes plan on doing to maintain the level of success they achieved in 2018. What they did worked, and JMU has no plans on making dramatic changes to how it prepares for games.
This past season saw the emergence of senior forward Aaron Ward-Baptiste and redshirt sophomore forward Carson Jeffris, who scored seven and eight goals, respectively. Despite both of them playing the same position, they fed off each other’s success to help JMU thrive on the attacking front.
“Both Ward-Baptiste and I stepped to the plate and had breakout seasons,” Jeffris said. “It’s not about me scoring goals, it’s about can we all as a team, together, are as efficient in front of goal as possible. I hope it’s me scoring a million goals, but I’ll be just as happy if it’s a freshman, Maarten Nikkessen or Janis Lamatsch scoring those goals, because they can step up, too.”
One of the big obstacles the team will have to overcome is filling the shoes of the six graduating seniors. Ward-Baptiste, senior defender Thomas Shores and graduate student midfielder Yannick Franz all leave big roles to be filled by underclassmen.
“All six seniors, regardless of what they were doing, always tuned in and made sure we were the best we could possibly be,” Jeffris said. “Even though sometimes things weren’t going our way, they were still putting their arms around us and making sure that we continued to push forward.”
Although each graduating class comes with the absence of veteran leadership, players like Bush, Jeffris and others believe they’re more than capable of stepping into that role. The team has leadership qualities from top to bottom, something that’ll play an important role when the team gets ready for its 2019 season.
Coming off two consecutive CAA regular season titles, a CAA tournament title and an NCAA run that gained national recognition, JMU has established itself as a conference power. With that comes teams putting their best effort to take down the top dog. Bush says it’s about going above and beyond in order to stay ahead of the competition.
“I think a lot of it for us is not just doing what’s required of us, but putting that extra effort in,” Bush said. “Whether it’s just getting some guys together to pass for 15 minutes, playing small-sided games or going to optional lifts, it’s doing whatever it takes to elevate to that next level.”
The team still feels the sting of being so close to the College Cup, but JMU believes it’s in good hands to take what was built this past season and carry it into years to come. There’s a new expectation within the program, and it’s to remain an NCAA tournament competitor.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.