By: Jamie Tritschler, Athletic Communications Intern
This week's Coaches Corner features Penn State Brandywine men's soccer coach, Jesse Zafiratos. Coach Zafiratos made headlines during his first season as the team captured the PSUAC championship and is looking forward to bringing the team back to the championship this fall.
JT: How long have you been coaching and playing soccer?
JZ: I have been coaching at the college level for six years. I was an assistant for four years at Widener University, which is a Division III school, and I'm coming up on my second season here at Penn State Brandywine.
I played collegiately my freshman year at Kutztown University, which was Division II school, and then transferred after that to Division III La Roche College, which is in Pittsburgh, Pa., and finished out my college career there. I was a forward. For my high school career I had 57 goals and in college I had 23.
JT: How did you get into coaching?
JZ: I always knew when I was playing in high school and in college that at some point I wanted to be a coach. I had a passion about it and was dedicated to wanting to coach once I was done playing. I had a couple mentors: Coach [Scott] Lang, who was the men's basketball coach at La Roche. He was a really big mentor for me when he was coaching. I had some really big influences and I've been pretty fortunate my whole life to have been able to play the game and I wanted to be able to give back to the kids in a positive way.
Coach Lang was actually like a father figure to me. He was the assistant athletic director and men's basketball coach at La Roche. He actually passed away a couple of years ago. He was a really good guy and he had a positive influence on my life about doing the right thing and growing up. I was living out in Pittsburgh until 2010 and after he passed away, I moved back here and got into coaching.
So funny story, when I played soccer at La Roche I was actually team manager for men's basketball. My roommate was the best player on the team and a bunch of the kids got in trouble so I ended up having to play on the college team. We ended up winning the conference championship which was really cool, so I went from team manager to player.
Before Coach Lang passed away, we had a conversation and he was really riding me about, "you're not doing this" or "you're not doing that." He says "you're not putting in 100 percent effort; you're just kind of going through the motions with things and you're better than that." He held me to a really high standard which is important and if I was doing things halfway, he would let me know. At the time I didn't like it; it was a pain, but now today, I see why he was like that. For all the success that I've had in coaching so far, I owe a lot of it to him for just constantly getting on me and getting me to do my best and put the extra effort in. I'm so grateful to have a mentor like that in my life. I was pretty fortunate. He was a fire under my butt, you know? I always had a good work ethic, but he would push me to that third or fourth level.
JT: Do you find that you echo a lot of Coach Lang's sentiments to your players as well?
JZ: A lot of the things that he would stress about having good character and doing the right thing and just little details that were so important. Not even being a good player, but being a good person, and if you're a good person with good character, all those other things will fall into place. Obviously I can't be a father figure to each kid, but I think if I can have a positive impact and influence on these kids' lives and strive to make them good adults who make good decisions, then I think I'm doing my job whether we win or lose.
JT: How is the team preparing for next season?
JZ: We have a great class coming in; we have 14 kids incoming. I had to replace two kids who scored 60 goals for us. We recruit athletes that are going to come in and do a great job right away; high character kids; kids that are ready to come in and contribute as freshmen. The standard is still really high and whether we have everyone back or nobody back, we'll bring in kids who fit our system and I'm pretty happy with what we have.
The season starts on August 15th. They all have summer workout plans. Basically, three times a week, they're all playing in men's summer leagues or working out. I stay in touch with a lot of the guys over the summer so they're all collaborating with me on what they're doing. A lot of these guys are running and lifting three days a week and playing in men's leagues two days a week so all these guys are going to come into preseason fit and ready to go so we aren't going to have to take a week to get everyone up and running again.
It's not mandatory; they don't have to do it, but if they don't come to preseason fit...I mean we have 35 kids coming to preseason and we can only dress 25 so there's going to be 10 kids getting cut from the team. If they want to contribute to this team and play on a college level, they have to come into camp fit or they're going to be behind the eight ball.
JT: What is your outlook for next season?
JZ: We have all of our defensive players coming back which is huge. I had to replace about 95% of our scoring so we're going to be young in the attack. We're going to have some mistakes and that stuff is going to happen, but I think the most important thing is continuing to work hard and work on the details. When adversity hits, you know, can we handle it together? Can we stay together as a group? If we can do those things and continue to strive to get better every day, I believe we'll be in the same place we were last year. We'll be competing for a conference championship and we'll go to nationals again.
We're going to change our formation and how we play. We're going to be deeper; we'll have five or six kids who are really good and can contribute right away and we won't be as one- or two-sided as we were this year. We'll have a lot of good options in the attacking half and we're really young with a lot of kids who are super athletic, have good skills, and I'm really excited for what we have coming in.
One thing that we can improve on from last year is that at times we were too dependent on two guys doing all of our goal scoring. This year, being more balanced and having more depth, I wanted to get more outside midfielders, and being more balanced is going to make it harder to beat us.
Our biggest competition in conference next year is definitely Penn State Hazleton; they're a solid team and we beat them in the championship game, 1-0. It was a close game. As a whole, Penn State Hazleton and Penn State Beaver...those were one-goal games. We won against Beaver in overtime last year and they'd won the championship in the previous year. Our out of conference schedule is ridiculous this year. We play a lot of lot of really good Division III teams; we're going to be really challenged right away this year. Our first five or six games are extremely tough. We're going to be young and I'm fine with losing a couple games early on this year if it puts us in a direction where we're going to learn things moving forward.
JT: What is your coaching philosophy and style?
JZ: My philosophy is that every player is going to work as hard as they can and give 100 percent. At times, a player is going to have tactical mistakes, but at the end of the day, the effort is going to be there, and if you play really hard, it'll make up for those things. At times, maybe we don't run our offense right and things break down, but we just compete so hard every day it makes up for a lot of things.
I'm a pretty hands-on and vocal coach; I like to keep us hands-on and organized. These guys are all old enough where they can make their own decisions so I think for me, my coaching style is I like to score goals. I was a goal scorer in college and the biggest thing for us is I want us to score as many goals as possible. It's important to defend too, but if you can score, score, score, score, you're going to be tough to beat. Last year, we scored 93 goals as a team in 19 games. We literally outscored everyone, and this year, we might not score as many goals, but we'll be better defensively and more balanced. In the playoffs, all games were close. It wasn't like we were crushing everyone. If you're a good team, you win the close games. If you can win a game 1-0 and concede zero goals, it just shows that you're a balanced team.
JT: Who are your team leaders next year headed into a season with a lot of young players?
JZ: Our two captains coming into next year are James Cellucci and Mike Usher. I'm really excited for those guys to take the lead in this leadership role and they're high academic kids and great players for us and both were all-Americans this past year. We have a lot of freshmen coming in this year and those guys are going to be really important with getting them up to speed and on par with what we want to do. Having those two guys is like having assistant coaches on the field to communicate and help the guys and bring in a good culture. We're going to have them ready to go right away.
We have a really good group of kids. At the end of the day, we're about just being good teammates and good people and I think you see at a lot of other programs where there are a lot of cliques and groups and we don't have that here with our team. All these guys are soccer junkies and you never see just three kids from the soccer team. If you see three, you see all twenty. These kids are always together.