Duquesne men’s soccer program enters the Spring season with plenty of reason for optimism and excitement even as it feels like they’ve had to have a slight program reboot.
The first test for Head Coach Chase Brooks’ team will be to travel less than a mile up the road to take on a team that’s been getting most of the notoriety of late on the local college soccer scene, nationally ranked Pitt, in a match to be played Saturday at Ambrose Urbanic Field (4 p.m. kickoff).
“We are excited to be on the precipice of finally playing a game,” Brooks said via phone interview Thursday. “In the Fall, we were never really, fully together as a team. It’s been tough for us. We rely heavily on building a strong, family-oriented culture. There were a lot of small-sided games. Not much contact. We did a lot of technical work, but it wasn’t until about three weeks ago, did we really come together as a team.”
The Dukes, and much of the Division I college landscape, both men and women, are mostly in the same boat. Only a few conferences did compete and move forward with Fall 2020 seasons. Among those were the Atlantic Coast Conference, allowing for Pitt to continue to build upon a successful 2019 and into even greater heights in 2020.
“They played in the Fall, so while they may be a little rusty, they should have an advantage,” Brooks added. “This will be a big test for us right from the start of the season.”
Heading into his seventh season at Duquesne, Brooks’ guided his program to a mild resurgence in the 2019 season, as they finished with a 8-8-1 overall record. This came after consecutive losing seasons in 2017 and 2018. However, because they finished in a five-way tie for seventh place in the very competitive Atlantic 10, they fell just short of returning to the Atlantic 10 playoffs.
The 2019 team went through some ups and downs, but saw a balanced attack and were solid defensively, especially at home where they boasted a 6-2 record.
For Brooks, it will be tough to corral any direct momentum from that season, as COVID-19 interrupted things in 2020.
The roster will have a fair amount of turnover, with just two seniors coming back: Ryan Landry (Shaler) and Jack Shearer (Central Valley) while they will be infused with a youth movement that will include 12 true freshman (and one redshirt freshman).
Brooks cited that there’s something different about players as they enter their senior campaigns, and in Shearer and Landry, he raves about their contributions as leaders and high character student-athletes.
Shearer transferred back to Western PA after spending his first two collegiate years at St. John’s. At Duquesne in 2019, the former Riverhounds Development Academy product provided a strong, physical presence at the top of the attack, scoring five goals and adding two assists.
“He’s very good with his back to the goal,” Brooks said about Shearer. “Hopefully this year, we’ll be able to continue to play to his strengths.”
Landry was a solid player for the Dukes as an underclassman, scoring twice and adding five assists as a versatile midfielder who’s became strong presence on the flank as an outside back in 2017 and 2018. However, a leg injury kept him from playing in 2019, but the former Arsenal and Shaler standout is ready for one last go this Spring.
‘I’m very excited for Ryan, as he’s worked hard to come back from an injury, for this opportunity to help our team and showcase his talents,” Brooks said. “I really believe he could play at the next level.”
Two Duquesne players from 2019 earned All-Atlantic 10 honors, including Manel Busquets, who was a First Team All-Atlantic 10 as a midfielder, but has since transferred to Syracuse.
Brooks cited that one of the drawbacks from having a positive season in 2019, were that a few players including Busquets, took advantage of opportunities to move on to transfer to bigger Division I programs.
The roster is filled with numerous student-athletes with roots here in Western PA.
One of the program’s most notable local players is Nate Dragisich (McDonald, Pa./West Allegheny). Dragasch, who also played with the Riverhounds Development Academy, was named to the conference’s All-Rookie Team by starting off his collegiate career with team-high five assists on his way to earning A-10 Rookie of the Week honors twice. It was just the fourth time in program history that a player earned Rookie of the Week honors multiple times. Dragisich, who started 16 times, had a pair of goals to finish with nine points on the season.
“He’s the closest thing to a street player we have,” Brooks quipped. “He has great instincts and the game comes natural to him. He sees the game in his own way, but yet, he understands our way and what we want to do. He’ll only continue to build on his game and keep getting better,”
Brooks also said that Carter Breen (SO, Norwin), Markello Apodiakos (SO, Belle Vernon), Nick Smith (RS FR, Kiski Area) and Giuseppe Croce (FR, Mt. Lebanon) will be battling for playing time and spots with the team.
After facing Pitt, the Dukes will face a six-game dash through one of four Atlantic 10 ‘Pods’ — as they’ll be playing home-and-home games against St. Bonaventure, Dayton and St. Louis.
“If we can come away from the Pitt match with a lot of positives and things to build on, and playing to our principles, I like how the schedule falls for us,” Brooks said. “We’ll have two weeks to prepare for our A10 opener on the road, at St. Bonaventure, then the next three matches will be at home.”
“You could say that we’re starting over slightly,” Brooks said. “But we get an opportunity to start building things now, with this Spring season. We can’t wait to get going.”