by Andrew Blair
There's no truth to the rumor that Randolph-Macon head men's soccer Josh Laux has enlisted the Department of Defense to help guide the program this year.
It would've been easy for onlookers and opponents to think otherwise as the Yellow Jackets have posted six shutouts and allowed only two goals total en route to one of the best starts in team history at 7-0 entering Saturday's home match versus top-10 foe Washington & Lee. W&L (5-0-1) is ranked eighth in the country in the Sept. 19 United Soccer Coaches rankings, while Randolph-Macon checks in at No. 10 in the South Atlantic region in the same poll.
The Yellow Jackets were the only team in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference to beat W&L last year, scoring a 1-0 victory in Lexington. The significance of the match this time around isn't lost on Coach Laux.
"I always believe in our team. I mean, I think we're every bit as good as them," he said. "I know that we are the game they have circled on their calendar. I know that they're coming ready to play, but our guys are coming ready to play as well.
"I think it comes down who is 'on' on the day. They have a lot of offensive talent. So do we. They are good defensively. So are we. They have a good goalkeeper. So do we. We're ready for it. We're hoping to get off on the right foot [Saturday], that's all."
The notion that 'defense wins' has been recycled seemingly over and over again by coaches in many sports over the years; they emblazon the words on the backside of players' practice shorts—only to be forgotten five minutes later.
Not so with Randolph-Macon's soccer team where defense is the team's cornerstone. Given the Yellow Jackets' resistance, a better slogan might be 'shoot at your own risk' because stopping opponents has led to transition offense and goal scoring for the Yellow Jackets during its early-season surge.
The program started the season with a four-goal output in a drubbing of Wesley. Thereafter, two goals were enough to secure victories versus Neumann and at Marymount (Va.) and one goal in back-to-back matches held up in away encounters against Cabrini and Stevenson thanks to the Yellow Jackets' stingy resistance.
That's 450 minutes of match time without allowing a ball find the back of the net. Procrastinators have gone less time without a goal.
The Yellow Jackets allowed a goal just before halftime in a 3-2 win over St. Mary's last Saturday, ending their streak at just under 494 minutes. But they were back at it against Catholic at home on Wednesday, notching a gritty 1-0 victory in a double overtime grind-it-out match, incredibly signaling their sixth shutout in their first seven matches.
Coach Laux (pronounced 'lucks') knew that defense was going to be one of the team's strengths this season. The team has adopted a unique but effective style that promotes—no, insists upon—freedom of movement in marking opposing players, as well as allowing for flip-the-field opportunities that lead to goal-scoring chances for the likes of senior forward Bryan Lutz (Fairfax, Va./W.T. Woodson), who is second in the ODAC with five goals. He netted the game-winner against Catholic in the 109th minute with less than two minutes remaining in match time.
"We start defending with our forwards, so it's not just our 'backs and goalkeeper who do the job for us," said Coach Laux, who is in his third year guiding the program. "Our back line and goalkeeper are outstanding, but we get a lot of pressure on the ball. We feel comfortable when we have the ball and feel like we're a dangerous team when we don't have the ball because we can create goals off of our pressure."
Junior goalkeeper Brian Breslin (Fairfax, Va./W.T. Woodson) has been the anchor. In addition to sound technique, he's combined his athleticism with natural instincts to lead the ODAC in goals against average (0.27).
"He's making the saves he needs to make and he's controlling the box," Coach Laux says. "The great thing about Brian is that he takes away a lot of shots that never become shots because of the way that he is so explosive off his line. He eats up a lot of through-balls and prevents counter-attacks from the other team. With a different 'keeper in there, those may become shots that have to become saves or maybe they become goals, but with Brian a lot of those opportunities don't even become shots."
Breslin has plenty of help in front of him in defensemen and seniors Jake Tyler (Colonial Heights, Va./Colonial Heights) and Jacob McHugh (Aberdeen, Md./West Nottingham Academy), as well as sophomores Paul Duffy (Salem, Va./Salem) and Isaac Myers (Littlestown, Pa./Gettysburg Area). Defending is the dirty, bruising, bloody, bone-rattling work of soccer. Whether it is slide-tackling, wrestling with a player in a phone booth-sized area near the mouth of the goal on a corner kick or competing for a 50-50 ball, Coach Laux says he has plenty of players willing to give up their bodies in order to chisel out victory.
"We kind of have almost like a hockey team mentality in terms of sacrificing your body, working hard and putting everything on the line," Coach Laux says. "I'd say part of our philosophy is that we might not always be able to play quickly offensively, but you can always control the way you defend. Our goal is to always have a solid defensive performance every single game to give ourselves a chance to win every game that we're in."
"We don't really get on players too much about what they do offensively as long as they are doing the job defensively, so it's kind of fun in that regard—to do all the dirty work, work hard work on the defensive end and then get a ton of freedom to do what you want on the offensive end, not just as an individual, but as a group of players."
The wins against St. Mary's and Catholic are part of a demanding five-match stretch that sees the Yellow Jackets face W&L and Randolph at home and rival Hampden-Sydney on the road in the next three encounters. The Hampden-Sydney match starts a stretch of five of seven matches on away turf to conclude the regular season.
The team's growth will undoubtedly be tested as Coach Laux calls this part of the schedule "the toughest stretch of games I've ever had as a head coach. It doesn't get any easier."
The underlying prospect of the results against ODAC opponents having postseason and NCAA Tournament implications for the Yellow Jackets is obvious.
"I just still think we are looked at as an 'up and comer,' where I think we are past that point," Coach Laux said. "Doing well in the conference is our No. 1 priority. We've had a great non-conference and that's exciting, but we have a brutal stretch of conference games that we have to come out of with points so we set ourselves up well in the standings.
"I think if we do that, we're on the table for NCAA Tournament consideration should we not win the conference tournament. I think with our record now and if we have a really good ODAC campaign, I think we would have to get into the NCAA Tournament, but we still have to have that good ODAC campaign. We have a lot of 'giants' standing in our way that we have to knock down—no doubt about that."
But one thing is certain: The Yellow Jackets' defense will be ready.