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After ‘dry run’ in the fall, Navy men’s and women’s soccer ready for strange spring season

Navy senior midfielder Kristina Dzhandzhapanyan, shown dribbling the ball under pressure from Pittsburgh defender Athalie Palomo during a game in September, is a preseason All-Patriot League pick.
Navy senior midfielder Kristina Dzhandzhapanyan, shown dribbling the ball under pressure from Pittsburgh defender Athalie Palomo during a game in September, is a preseason All-Patriot League pick. (Phil Hoffman/Navy Athletics)

College soccer season begins this weekend.

It seems strange to say that in late February, but the pandemic has created a new normal for much of college athletics.

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Navy men’s and women’s soccer are set top open a rare spring campaign with a Sunday doubleheader at the Glenn Warner Soccer Facility. Coach Carin Gabarra and the women’s squad will welcome Colgate at noon, while coach Tim O’Donohue and the men’s squad will host the same Patriot League opponent at 3 p.m.

Navy women’s soccer is the preseason pick to repeat as Patriot League champions. Navy was voted by conference coaches just ahead of archrival Army, which it beat in last season’s Patriot League Tournament final.

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The Midshipmen have six returning All-Patriot League performers, including first team selection Kristina Dzhandzhapanyan. The senior wing forward and team captain is known for her one-touch crossing passes that produced four assists in 2019.

“I think it’s flattering and I’m excited people voted for us. I think that has a lot to do with being able to train all fall and play games,” Gabarra said.

Navy was swept (1-0 in overtime, 4-1) by Pittsburgh in a home-and-home series then lost 2-1 to Virginia Tech during the abbreviated fall season. Gabarra, in her 28th season at the helm, felt the fall was valuable for the Midshipmen.

“I think the experience we gained going against two high-level opponents was invaluable,” she said. “We learned a lot about our freshmen as far as how they play and how to integrate them. We learned about our senior leadership.”

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Practicing and playing during the fall also enabled the Mids to get accustomed to regular coronavirus testing and the associated protocols such as contact tracing.

“I think the fall was a bit of a dry run for us. We should have no glitches now because we understand how it all works in terms of the process,” she said.

Dzhandzhapanyan and junior midfielder Victoria Tran were preseason All-Patriot League picks. Gabarra was grateful for the leadership provided by Dzhandzhapanyan during the fall, but felt her on-field performance suffered because of the responsibility.

“Huge shout out to Kristina for being a captain during one of the most trying and challenging times in the history of Navy athletics. There was a lot of pressure, and I think I talked to that kid every single day about something,” Gabarra said. “Kristina learned a lot about herself in the fall because her play dropped off. She just had so much stress on her shoulders that she forgot why she was out there, which was to enjoy herself and play high-level soccer.”

Tran scored three goals and played a pivotal role in the central midfield with her versatility. The River Hill High graduate scored the game-winning goal against Army and ranked second on the squad with 1,808 minutes played last season.

“Victoria is dynamic, resourceful and resilient. She just does so many different things for our team,” Gabarra said. “We don’t have another player like Victoria, whose mobility is amazing. She’s just all over the field.”

Navy midfielder Jenna Daunt, left, heads the ball through a crowd of Pittsburgh players during Sunday afternoon's game at Glenn Warner Soccer Facility. Navy lost in overtime, 1-0.
Navy midfielder Jenna Daunt, left, heads the ball through a crowd of Pittsburgh players during Sunday afternoon's game at Glenn Warner Soccer Facility. Navy lost in overtime, 1-0. (Phil Hoffman/Navy athletics)

Navy is experienced in the midfield with junior Caroline Mang (C. Milton Wright), also a returning starter. Sophomore left fullback Kaitlynn Johns was the Patriot League Rookie of the Year in 2019. Junior Avery Fries, a third team All-Patriot League pick, is another returning starter on defense.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on defending and our back line is extremely strong once again,” Gabarra said. “We don’t have a starting four because the competition is so great. We’re still trying to figure out which four mesh the best together.”

Navy men’s soccer was picked second behind defending champion Lehigh in the Patriot League preseason poll. The Midshipmen placed third during the 2019 season with a 5-3-1 conference record.

Lehigh has a pair of preseason Patriot League honorees in Offensive Player of the Year Josh Lucini and Midfielder of the Year Stevo Bednarsky. While conceding Lehigh is the team to beat, O’Donohue believes Army, Colgate and Loyola Maryland will also be formidable.

“The Patriot League has very good men’s soccer. I’m anticipating every single game will be an absolute battle,” the fifth-year coach said.

Junior center back Matt Nocita was voted preseason Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, not a surprise considering he received that honor in 2019. The 6-foot-8 California native has also been named to the watch list for the Hermann Trophy, presented annually to the nation’s best collegiate soccer player.

“Matt’s as talented as any center back in the country. He’s a big guy who moves really well and has all the tools you look for at that position,” O’Dononue said. “Matt’s as good as you’re going to see in college soccer, the type of player we’ve built the team around.”

Navy men's soccer player Matt Nocita
Navy men's soccer player Matt Nocita (Phil Hoffmann)

Junior forward Jacob Williams was also picked to repeat as a first team All-Patriot League performer. The Old Mill High graduate has piled up 34 career points on the strength of 15 goals. The Millersville resident was the Patriot League Rookie of the Year as a plebe.

“Jacob is a slasher, a pure goal-scorer. Every opponent has to prepare for him,” O’Donohue said. “He’s very dangerous, very creative and very athletic. When Jacob is on his game, he is very difficult to deal with.”

Navy has four other returning All-Patriot League selections in seniors Wyatt Millard, Ian Bramblett and Nicko West along with junior Tyler Collins.

Bramblett is back between the pipes after allowing only 10 goals in 17 games in 2019. The 6-foot-2 South Carolina resident tied the single-season program record with 10 shutouts. He ranked fourth nationally with a 0.57 goals-against average and 12th with a .808 save percentage.

“It all starts in the goal and we are very fortunate to have a solid senior in Ian,” O’Donohue said.

Collins, a Crofton resident, is the other center back in Navy’s defensive system and pairs with Nocita like “peanut butter and jelly,” O’Donohue said. “Those two guys work really well together, are just so symbiotic.”

Navy men’s soccer upset third-ranked Virginia in an exhibition then posted a 2-1 victory over N.C. State in a game that counted. Those results against strong Atlantic Coast Conference programs were encouraging.

“I don’t think we could have played those teams that well in Year 1, 2 or 3 of my tenure,” O’Donohue said. “However, we’ve been building and evolving to the point I think we have a quality program. It’s satisfying to see that we can compete with teams of that caliber.”

West, a forward, scored seven goals in 2019 and notched the game-winner against Virginia. O’Donohue described Millard, a midfielder who has played in 52 career games with 47 starts, as the “heart and soul” of the squad.

Navy has added a pair of talented holding midfielders in plebes David Jackson and Cristian Coelho, both of whom played for the Houston Dynamo within the United States Soccer Development Academy.

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“David and Cristian have changed our team and how we play. They are just different than any player we’ve had since I’ve been here — just very technical, top-end guys.”

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