— Shepherd Soccer Opens Inspiring New Chapter

 Alex Jones entered his first year as head men’s soccer coach at Shepherd University (SU) last season (2017/2018). It’s no secret: up to that point, SU Soccer had fallen on tough times. The previous three seasons combined (pre-Jones) had produced a record of 10-41-1.

Needless to say, it was time for a change, and after a thorough search, SU President of Athletics, Chauncey Winbush, found exactly who and what he needed, essentially, right in front of him.

Jones, a former Ram soccer standout (class of 2011), was already a first-year assistant with the men’s team, as well as the assistant strength and conditioning coach for the university. With his qualifications and value to Shepherd established, Winbush turned to Jones—who was also promoted to head strength and conditioning coach at SU—to resurrect the program. His mission: to bring back both the type of culture and the winning ways that had all but faded since Jones himself last laced up his cleats for the Rams.

“I arrived in 2006 and graduated in 2011; my first year, we reached sixteenth in the nation and missed the NCAA tournament by one game,” he explained. “In my senior year, we won twelve games in a row and again missed the tournament by just a game—losing to West Virginia Wesleyan.”

Having played a pivotal role in the most successful stretch of soccer in Shepherd’s 29-year history, Jones graduated and went to work at Fairfax (VA) High School, as the strength and conditioning and assistant soccer coach, from 2014-2016. Along the way, he also added a master’s degree in exercise science with a concentration in performance enhancement and injury prevention from California University of Pennsylvania.

“While pursuing some prerequisites for my doctorate in physical therapy, I learned that I loved the prehab portion of exercise, and decided to go for my master’s in exercise science.”

Jones, along with an assistant, currently oversees all sports programs at SU. “We split them up and help the coaches build the most efficient and safe exercise programs for off-season, in-season, and summer workouts for their teams and specific sports.”

He’s taken that knack to make athletes and teams better, and combined it with his love of the game (and a passion only a fellow alum can appreciate), to build a plan for the future—where SU Soccer experiences the type of success he once enjoyed.

“As far as the culture goes during those years, it was all family,” he affirmed. “No divide between anyone. Now that I’m back, I want to reestablish that not just among the team members, but with alumni. I think it’s very important for everyone to be involved—from alumni to supporters to the community—as big a SU Soccer family as we can create.”

(L to R) Jones, Assistant Coach Sam Turner, and Shepherd’s returning roster. – Photo ©Observer

Buying In

Shepherd joined the Mountain East Conference (MEC) in 2013, and the soccer team got an immediate taste of where it ranked in the hierarchy. “It’s a totally different experience from conferences of the past—with multiple teams ranked top ten in the nation,” noted Jones. “It’s very important that we get all hands on deck to get as much support as possible—so that we can become as successful as we used to be.”

Building a program involves connecting a lot of people in order to create an umbrella of support, but also requires a strategic plan: an assessment of personnel (i.e., players), tactics, training, philosophy, and to use a soccer-friendly term, goals.

Without having to worry about facilities (Shepherd boasts one of the most beautiful home fields in the state), Jones has more time to work on everything else—addressing not just the culture, but some of the other components of SU Soccer that were compromised by the recent rough patch.

“First, it’s the mindset within the players we currently have. I believe in building a strong mentality,” he said. “Talent only goes so far, but hard work goes farther. We’re looking for players that want to grind—and who recognize that a winless season like last year is actually an opportunity this year … to work hard and be the force that sparks change for the next four years.”

As of now, Jones has already accounted for 20 incoming freshman and transfers (and counting), who are all well aware of the situation, but are buying into the new system that Jones and his staff have created, and ready to work.

To that end, his staff comprises a wealth of talent, youth, and experience in and of itself. Assistant Coach Matt D’Amico was a four-year starter for Shepherd from 2007-2010, helping to lead the Rams to a 12-6 record as an all-region selection in 2010. Dylan Forshay, a Falls Church (VA) native, played Division I soccer at Longwood University and, after graduation, served as the girls soccer coach at Paul VI Catholic High School in 2016—leading them to a WCAC Championship. And Sam Turner, a native of Kidderminster, England, was a four-year starter, and three-time all-conference selection, at WV Wesleyan from 2009-20013—where he then assisted from 2014-2016.

“Sam was actually a member of the Wesleyan team that bumped us from the national tournament,” admitted Jones. “He brings a lot of MEC knowledge and knows how to recruit internationally.”

A majority of the teams Shepherd faces in the MEC are international—a result of being fully-funded or almost fully-funded. “Most of the schools in our conference, Charleston for example, are packed with internationals—and they won the national championship last year,” he added. “But we believe we can do both: find international and American players, even regional and local players, to compete with these teams. It’s about finding character, not just talent.”

Shepherd forward Alejandro Oliart in action. Photo ©SU

That said, Jones and his staff must choose wisely which players get what type of scholarship(s). To their credit, they were able to secure the first international soccer player for SU in quite some time for the upcoming season. “We have a kid coming in from Australia who we’re very excited about—who we recruited hands-on, albeit via Skype.”

Immediate Impact

Believe it or not, the current SU roster consists of only nine players, eight of whom are cleared to play—a reality that Jones hopes will serve to both inspire and motivate every player in August. “In addition to our few upperclassman, we’re already asking our incoming freshman to think about who can lead. That’s the beauty of our situation. A lot of these kids are at a high level of club and high school soccer—and they’re ready to come in and make an immediate impact—and drive this program productively forward.”

On the field, Jones is looking for a pretty basic formula early on: “A lot of hard work—north and south players—we’d like to attack, obviously, but we’re going to work with the tools we have and build from there. We want the workhorses, the guys that go hard into the tackles every single time—who aren’t intimidated by internationals or championships. We want a hundred and ten percent, the whole ninety minutes—it’s the only way to go.”

All told, Jones admits that, regardless of the recent past, he can’t help but be excited moving forward. “Knowing we have twenty new players that can bind to the system with the guys we already have here,” he emphasized, “and the support of alumni and the community—I’m just excited to get everyone involved, and get started.”

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