It’s not an easy task to replace a head coach that has been the only coach of a program in its 28-year history. For JMU women’s soccer head coach Joshua Walters, he was put up to the task when it was announced he’d be the successor to former head coach Dave Lombardo.
Whenever a new coach enters the ranks at JMU, fans are quick to figure out what they’re like on and off the field or court. It’s easy to make an opinion based off one’s personality off the field, but Walters has established himself as a coach Dukes fans will grow to like.
Since Walters was hired in the spring, he was able to try different tactics and see what worked for JMU. Once the spring season was over, he looked at what worked and tried to develop a plan for the fall.
“What I learned in the spring was we’re a much better team when we can turn the other team over on their half of the field,” Walters said. “Pressure on the other team was really important. The big part I didn’t have then was what role the freshmen were going to have.”
After a disastrous 1-6 start to the season, things didn’t look well for Walters and the Dukes. The coaching staff struggled to figure out where players needed to be to start earning better results. After JMU’s 1-0 loss to High Point, Walters made a decision that changed the course of the season.
“After the High Point game, I looked at it and said, ‘We can’t keep playing this way and get results,’” Walters said. “So we decided to go to a 3-4-3 formation, which is modeled directly after the University of North Carolina and [UNC women’s soccer head coach Anson Dorrance].”
To follow the model set by Dorrance and the UNC women’s soccer program isn’t a bad idea. The Tar Heels have won 22 National Championships and are always one of the top teams in the country. Walters knows the standard that’s set there and wants to bring that to JMU.
“People think that if there’s only three at the back, they might get overrun,” Walters said. “Instead, what it does is provide clarity. They know who they’re defending.”
In the spring, Walters wanted to work on building play from the defensive line instead of knocking the ball up the field and hoping one of his attackers can get to it. Since the defenders are now starting the attacks, there’s an added responsibility for them on top of stopping opposing team’s chances.
“We’ve been really working on building out of the back,” freshman defender Sarah Gordon said. “[We’ve been] trying to keep the ball rather than just kicking it. In practice, we’ve been working on possession a lot.”
Preparation is key for a JMU team that battles with big-name schools. The team watches film around four times a week, which is a change from previous seasons. Senior defender/midfielder Stephanie Hendrie knows the importance of practicing and preparing for every opponent as it helps the team get into a rhythm once matchday arrives.
“We watch a lot of film and he makes sure to go over things constantly of what we want to do for that week,” Hendrie said. “We watch it, draw it on the board then go out and practice it. That helps it get into our minds of what we need to do.”
Playing a 3-4-3 formation is not only difficult for teams to prepare for, but it calls for the players to step up and fill their roles on the field in order to make it work. For the Dukes, the formation allows them to play the style they want.
“[Teams aren’t ready for] our press and our counter-attack once we win the ball,” Hendrie said. “When we turn and go forward in ten seconds, it’s difficult for the other team to stop.”
Players like Gordon, Hendrie and freshman defender Ashby Larkin have helped Walters and JMU vault into the top spot in the CAA, but junior goalkeeper Hannah McShea has been a key cog in the Dukes’ turnaround. McShea is tied for first in the conference in shutouts with six.
“She makes incredible saves for us,” Walters said. “In my mind, she’s the best goalkeeper in the conference. She’s a small goalkeeper, but the saves she makes is on another level. When playing three at the back, the other teams are going to have opportunities, and every time she’s there to make a save.”
Walters uses a mixture of Dorrance’s style at UNC, Italian manager Antonio Conte and how the MLS’ New York Red Bulls play. What Walters adds to that collaboration is the ability to see a problem and make adjustments, rather than staying true to just one style. That ability has helped him grow as a coach and help JMU find itself as a CAA frontrunner.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more men’s soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.