After beginning the season unranked, Virginia Tech men’s soccer finds themselves on the doorstep of maybe the biggest game of their season on Friday night.
The No. 15 Hokies will travel to South Bend, IN for a showdown with No. 1 Notre Dame on Friday night, as Virginia Tech looks to win yet another game against a ranked opponent this season.
Virginia Tech has been on a roll to start the year. The Hokies dropped No. 18 Ohio State in the opener thanks to a double-overtime game winner from Marcelo Acuna. Tech then took care of Oakland and South Florida by a combined score of 7-1, and then upset No. 24 Georgetown on the road on Sept. 5.
Head Coach Mike Brizendine said that the two wins over Ohio State and Georgetown have helped boost the team’s confidence and given them momentum heading into the rest of the season.
“We were a little shaky in the first 10 minutes, then we got into a good rhythm. In the second half, I thought we were very good,” Brizendine said of Tech’s win over Ohio State. “Going into the weekend, we were playing two teams that had been in the tournament. Oakland has gone the last couple years. You just never know what you’re going to get out of the group. It really helped our confidence. That goal, the excitement, we thought we had something special.”
Virginia Tech’s offense has sparked in the second half of games. The Hokies have scored five second half goals this season, compared to just three in the first half. Tech has also attempted 20 more shots in the second half and six more corner kicks.
Brizendine credited Acuna, who leads the team with four goals and 14 shots, as well as Som Essome, who is second on the team with eight shots so far.
“I think guys like Marcelo and Som, when they get into a rhythm, they get going,” Brizendine said. “I think as we continue to progress through our season, my hope is that we’ll become smoother and smoother.”
Acuna has been quite the revelation for Virginia Tech. He played last season for Houston Baptist University and he has been Tech’s most potent offensive player.
“He’s that punch that we haven’t had, I think, in the last two seasons,” Brizendine said. “With games that would be close, we would lose or tie, because we couldn’t get it, we were so close. Now we’re getting them and getting wins because of it. He’s done a great job of lifting up the guys around him. It’s made Som better, it’s made Ryan (Marcano) better. He’s raised those guys’ games.”
Tech’s defense might be the most responsible for the hot start. The Hokies have allowed just one goal this season, in large part due to keeper Ben Lundgaard and defender Alessandro Mion.
“When I talk about those guys that have a desire to win and worked hard over the summer, Alessandro Mion and Ben Lundgaard are two guys I’m thinking about,” Brizendine said. “Ben trained this summer instead of working and it’s shown in his performances. He’s been excellent in every game we’ve played, Georgetown especially. I thought he was superb and kept us in that game.”
“Alessandro was coming back from his ACL tear and he worked extremely hard over the summer and his passion to win and for this team to do well is maybe matched only by the coaching staff,” Brizendine said. “He has been a great driving force for this.”
Lundgaard has really taken on a leadership role for Virginia Tech and even earned a captain’s role this season.
“He’s vocal, he works. All the guys know what they’re going to get out of Ben,” Brizendine said. “They look up to him and I think he’s been a great addition to our captains. We’ve had Andre (Thomas) and Alessandro as captains before but we added Ben this year and for good reason. He worked hard and he’s been dedicated to what we’re doing.”
Notre Dame will be Tech’s toughest test this season by far. The Fighting Irish have won their games by a 12-1 margin this season and are led by John Gallagher, who’s scored four goals and racked up three assists as well.
“They defend well in their group of eight,” Brizendine said. “We have to break that down. I think there is some opportunity for us in the width, which is good for us. With that said, we have to protect because they’ll attack with those numbers on the flank with the width and we have to protect that space. I think their runs are good, their services are very good.”
Brizendine said that it’s a challenge to get players to ignore team rankings in big games, but that he’s stressed to his players that he’s more concerned about Friday’s night’s game being an ACC game.
“I don’t want our guys to be intimidated, but I don’t want our guys to be arrogant,” Brizendine said. “It’s a fine line of walking that. I try to put it in the right perspective. Yes, they are very good, but we can compete with them. That’s kind of the message.”
No matter the result, Virginia Tech has a chance for one of the best seasons in recent memory. That being said, playing in the ACC is a tough proposition. Of the top 25 schools, four ACC schools are in the top six (Notre Dame, Clemson, North Carolina and Syracuse) and Virginia, Wake Forest and Boston College are also currently ranked.
“It’s tough because it’s tough to win games, but it’s a blessing in the sense that, you always know where you stand in the country,” Brizendine said. “You’re playing against the best. If you want to go to the postseason, you have an opportunity to win those games. If you can get hot in the last four games of the season, you can jump your RPI up significantly because you’re playing ACC games. Of those last four or five games, two or three will be ACC teams, which most likely will be a team that’s in the top-25, most certainly the top-50 RPI.”
Even with a tough schedule, Brizendine believes his team can make a run in the ACC and get into the NCAA Tournament.
“I think we’re built to do it,” Brizendine said. “How we deal with adversity will be a key thing. We’ve dealt with it a little bit, but how we deal with that, and I think we have the leadership to get us through.”
“My hope and desire is to make the NCAA Tournament and I think we can do that,” Brizendine said. “That’s a long way off. It’s a hope of mine and the team’s. We know it’s a step by step process.”