Elon University men’s soccer forward Elijah Agu said there’s no other way to explain it — the pieces just didn’t fall into place last year.
Sure, the stats paint the grim picture of the Phoenix’s fall from grace. In 2015, the men’s squad darted to a NCCA tournament birth off a 14-win season. And at one point, they were ranked as high as the No. 8 team in the nation. Last year, though, they dipped. The team only won seven games and were bounced from the Colonial Athletic Association conference tournament in the first round. But Agu, one of the team’s unquestioned leaders, said declining numbers aren’t the main culprit for their woes.
The Phoenix never gelled together, Agu said.
“There’s not really specific things to point to,” said Agu, who led the team in goals last year with 11. “A lot of it was we had an individual mindset last year and we needed to work more collectively.”
But that all changed in February. After third-year head coach Chris Little resigned that month to become the Seattle Sounders FC Academy’s Director of Coaching, Marc Reeves left Radford University, where he coached men’s soccer for seven years, to replace him. And from there, things were different. The attitude in the locker room changed. Everyone, from coaches to players, adopted a unified mindset of togetherness. And with a squad Reeves called “truly talented,” he said his team is ready to return to their winning ways.
“We want to focus on competition,” Reeves said. “We want to maximize our full potential and hold people accountable.”
Reeves said he has the utmost respect for Little, saying he created a “world-class program” where players excelled on and off the field. But amid added pressure off the heels of an unexpectedly successful season, Reeves said, “Things might not have gone as they wanted.” So Reeves did what he could to be a breath of fresh air. And Agu said it’s working. When Agu first met him, he knew things would be a little bit different. So far, he said it’s been beneficial.
“He’s a very driven coach,” Agu said. “He knows what he wants and the expectations of his players are clear. As a whole, I feel our team has bonded more.”
Hearing those words, especially from Agu, should be reassuring for Reeves. The senior from Cary will be the motor propelling the Phoenix to their goals. He made the preseason All-CAA team after finishing top three in the league last year in goals, points (23), points per game (1.35), goals per game (0.65) and game winning goals (4). After working with Agu in the spring and summer, Reeves said he can see his demeanor changing. He’s fixed his punctuality problems, he’s more competitive in practice and his emotions are more controlled. Reeves said he expects a big year from him, saying his individual accolades are a product of the team around him.
“Individual people succeed when the team succeeds,” Reeves said. “Elijah made 11 goals last year, which is impressive. He has quick feet, he’s fast and he can finish around the goal in a variety of ways. And now I can see him trying really hard to fix the little habits.”
Agu’s skillset resembles what the Phoenix wants to execute in terms of X’s and O’s. Reeves said his team will focus on attacking the net, making sure they are set up in the defensive backfield and use their speed to create offense. And they have the ideal squad for that. Their roster is deep. They have nine juniors and three seniors, and Reeves expects his nine sophomores to play significant minutes. That cushion is reassuring to Reeves, especially considering the schedule he inherited.
Elon is playing two Top-25 teams including Wake Forest University (2) and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (15). Their CAA opponents is competitive as well. The Phoenix played a scoreless tie against Fordham University last week and the brunt of their schedule begins in September after a six-day break between games versus Central Florida University — who Elon defeated 1-0 last week — and Presbyterian University. Reeves said he’s excited, saying throwing the Phoenix into the fire early will be a great litmus test for them.
“The CAA is a very competitive league,” Reeves said. “We have to play every game prepared, focused and hopefully the results will show.”
And that’s all Reeves said he can expect. As the season approaches, he said he thinks his team will be up for the challenge. And hopefully, he said the Phoenix will be able to put the pieces back together.
“We’re not looking backward, we’re only looking forward,” Reeves said. “Elon has a great environment and we have all the tools we need to succeed. With some added support from our fans, I think it’ll be a great year.”