As Sporting Kansas City forward C.J. Sapong continues to thrive in his first professional season, James Madison University – his developing ground over the previous four years – are enjoying a banner year themselves.
The Dukes, who never made the NCAA Tournament during Sapong’s collegiate career, are poised for big things after Wednesday’s defeat of Old Dominion, the team’s fourth win in a row. The victory pushed their record to 12-2-1 overall, and clinched them at least a bye in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament.
“The team pretty much says it all,” head coach Tom Martin told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s a team – it’s a different entity. I’m not apologizing for our success, but in a lot of ways, it’s a little surprising, with what we lost and who we lost.”
Losing a player of Sapong’s caliber – not to mention a handful of other seniors as well – usually triggers a down year in a program’s cycle. As a result, JMU was picked to finish eighth in the CAA, a fact that has served as motivation all year.
“Their chemistry and spirit is excellent,” Martin said. “That’s something that as a coach in any sport you always strive for and put kids in situations to foster the development of that, but you can never guarantee that’s one of your ingredients that’s working very well.
“The kids were bright enough to realize that [Sapong is] gone. We’ve [had] to find another way to be successful, because those kids don’t come along very often.”
That’s just what the team has done; they've put in the work over the course of a full 90 minutes each and every game, defend as a group, and convert enough opportunities in front of goal to find themselves on the winning side of most encounters.
The recipe was on display Wednesday night in Harrisonburg, Va., as the Dukes defeated CAA’s second-place team Old Dominion by a 3-2 score line, giving JMU a shot at hosting the postseason tournament in November (No. 1 seed is also the host).
“It ended up being a pretty open game, but again, we worked very hard, did the things that got us where we are,” Martin said of the win. “We worked well as a team, worked hard and got a good result. It was our night last night.”
Senior Patrick Innes (pictured above), one of the goal scorers in the win on Wednesday, has been a central figure all season. His 11 goals on the year have been instrumental in helping fill the void left by Sapong's departure.
“He’s always been a solid, strong player for us,” Martin said. “He’s been under the radar, lived in the shadow of people. He’s by no means a C.J. – they don’t have the same skillset – but the kid is opportunistic, very effective on dead balls, good in the box, knows the game, works very hard. And above all, it’s all about the team.”
With two games remaining, there’s still much at stake for James Madison. Two wins would guarantee that they host the CAA tournament in November, and possibly an NCAA tournament game down the road.
In order to get there, Martin knows it’s simply a matter of continuing to do what they’ve done all year, and continue to surprise the competition.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to be in this position,” he said. “The kids have done exactly what they had to do – they’ve won on the road, won at home, they’ve grinded it out, and they’ve done very well as a team.”
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, college and youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.