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BLACKSBURG — After a disappointing ending to last year’s season, the Blacksburg boys soccer team is hoping this year to continue its decades-long tradition of winning state titles.
Blacksburg coach Shelley Blumenthal, who is the Virginia High School League career leader with 576 coaching victories in boys soccer, has led the Bruins to 12 state championships since 1993. The Bruins’ first state championship came in 1989 under a different coach.
The Bruins beat Patrick Henry 1-0 on May 16 to finish the regular season 16-0. They could become the fourth team in program history to finish the entire season unbeaten. The deep squad has had eight players score five or more goals this season.
“I think we just have a lot of individual talent,” Blacksburg senior midfielder Nevin O’Dowd said at practice Wednesday. “We have a really dynamic team where anyone could come in and we’d still play at our top level because of individual skill.”
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O’Dowd has five goals and five assists this season.
The Bruins have won the River Ridge District title and have clinched the top seed in their regional tournament.
“Knowing that Western Albemarle and Jefferson Forest both having a lot of players back [helped motivate the Bruins],” Blumenthal said.
The Bruins lost to Western Albemarle in the Region 4D semifinals last season.
“We’ve been tracking [Western Albemarle], trying to see what games they’re playing,” O’Dowd said. “We’re still focused on our own game. But losing that last year will definitely make us want to beat them this year.”
O’Dowd, who has five goals and two assists this season, is one of three team captains alongside seniors Wyatt Eschenmann and David “DJ” Garza.
Eschenmann, who has six goals and eight assists as a midfielder this season, said the captains have different leadership types.
O’Dowd is the voice of reason, Garza is laid-back but voices his opinion when needed and Eschenmann is the vocal leader.
“I’ll be chirping away at the guys, trying to get us in shape to ensure the game is going [as planned],” Eschenmann said.
Garza is the team’s primary goalie and has 46 saves this season.
Fourteen of the Bruins’ 25 players are seniors. This is the largest group of seniors Blumenthal has ever coached in his 30 years at the school.
The last Blacksburg team to win a state title was the 2018 squad, which only started two seniors.
“That was a different team and it was a team that really followed the senior leaders that we had,” Blumenthal said about the differences between his 2023 and 2018 teams. “So I would say they’re quite different in a lot of ways, but both groups really like to have a good time … and knowing when to really focus on improving as a team.”
With 14 seniors, the motivation to win a state championship is high.
“A lot of us grew up together,” Blacksburg senior midfielder Edric Zhang said. “We developed together, and this is our senior year. We don’t have another chance after this year and last year we were unlucky to lose. … So, we’re looking forward to seeing it out this year.”
“This is the final competitive games that we’re going to play as soccer players,” Eschenmann said. “Winning the state championship with how close we are as this team would just be really fun.”
Zhang was the River Ridge District player of the year last season and is a nominee for the Virginia Gatorade boys soccer player of the year award this season.
“He’s excellent and fun to play with,” Eschenmann said.
Zhang, who has eight goals and nine assists, decided not to pursue soccer in college and instead will be attending Princeton with a major in aerospace engineering.
“I decided to pursue education instead,” Zhang said.
Blacksburg has a couple of pregame rituals, but “solidarity” is one of the team’s favorites.
“Solidarity is where we dap each other up and then hit each other’s backs and then we’re all yelling in the locker room,” O’Dowd said. “You can tell the difference when we’re super fired up because we know it’s going to be a competitive game and I think it helps us play really well.”
The Bruins have not allowed a goal in 11 of their games this year.
“We preach that defending is an entire team responsibility, not just our goalkeeper,” Blumenthal said.
The Bruins have only given up five goals this season and haven’t had a game where they have given up two or more goals.
Blacksburg junior back Addison Bass has been one of the team’s best defenders.
“I have to give him credit where it’s due because he’s saved us single-handedly multiple times,” O’Dowd said. “He’s a presence in the air and then he’s a really solid defender.”
“He’s played absolutely lights out this year,” Eschenmann said. “He’s been the driving force of our back line.”
Blacksburg has scored 76 goals this season and has had nine games with five goals or more. Junior forward Sean DeLorenzo leads the Bruins in goals with 15.
“A huge part of our offense is our creativity,” Zhang said. “We have an extremely strong midfield, and our midfield has the ability to switch the ball around when the time is right — and not always get too caught up into going down one side.”
The Bruins haven’t trailed in any game this season.
“We try to get fired up and we try to get those early goals,” O’Dowd said. “We’ve been able to get these early goals and that fires us up more.”
Zhang said the team’s identity is its competitiveness.
“That comes down to winning 50-50 balls, working hard, making runs when you don’t have the ball and taking chances,” Zhang said.
The Bruins, who will host Orange County in a Region 4D quarterfinal at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, apparently smell as good as they play.
“We got a couple of guys on the team who like to think they’re masters of the cologne,” Eschenmann said. “So they bring a couple of bottles every week.”