Rookies Rise to the Occasion
Nov. 14, 2012
By: Taylor Smyth | Maryland Media Relations Assistant
After his team bowed out in a disappointing fashion against Louisville in last season's NCAA tournament, Maryland men's soccer head coach Sasho Cirovski realized that something needed to change.
While his team would once again boast a multitude of talented attacking options, the two-time national champion coach knew the key to a title in 2012 would be simple: Stop the other team from scoring.
"We weren't happy with our overall team defending last year," Cirovski said. "One of the key goals for this season was to become a much tougher team to score against and to become much better both individually and collectively as a team defensively."
With 2011 All-ACC Second Team selections Taylor Kemp and London Woodberry entrenched in their starting spots, Cirovski would determine the other two starters on the backline over the summer and in preseason. Knowing the expectations of Maryland soccer are always title or bust, the players who filled these starting roles would not just need to be good, but exceptional.
Enter freshmen Mikey Ambrose and Dakota Edwards, two newcomers who have not only played up to Cirovski's high standards, but also embraced the pressure and expectations that come with playing for a perennial national title contender.
Ambrose has been named to the All-ACC second team for his efforts while starting every match in 2012 and Edwards, after scoring his first career goal in the ACC title game against North Carolina, garnered ACC All-Tournament Team honors.
"We want to win the national championship," Edwards said. "I hate losing. I want to be a part of a winning team."
Edwards' confident words are not without basis. The freshman pair has combined with Woodberry, Kemp, Jordan Cyrus and sophomore goalkeeper Keith Cardona to form one of the best defensive units in the country. The group has notched eight clean sheets this season, stifling opponents with a combination of strength and speed.
For both Edwards and Ambrose, their chemistry with their backline mates has been one of the main factors in the group's success.
"They're all great upperclassmen," Edwards said. "They're always giving us advice." "They always tell us to play our game, be confident, and work hard every day," Ambrose said. "They know we can get the job done."
Edwards paved his road to a starting spot with hard work and dedication. The Sayville, N.Y., native tallied 20 goals and 32 assists in high school, and, as a junior, helped lead Sayville High to a New York State Championship.
While Edwards was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school, the consistent strength of Maryland's squad meant that performance would always trump reputation in the fight to earn playing time. Edwards thrived in this environment and the sturdy center-back's determination in the offseason helped him obtain his desired role.
"I sacrificed a lot this summer. I was here at Maryland training with the team and working on my game," Edwards said. "It paid off."
Like Edwards, Ambrose also played at a high level before coming to Maryland. The native of Frisco, Texas did not play high school soccer, instead participating in the FC Dallas Academy program, where he starred for the club's 2011 U-18 national champions. He was also frequently featured in the FC Dallas reserves, gaining valuable experience against professional players.
Also a member of multiple U.S. youth national squads, the quick right-back attributes his rigorous youth career as one of the keys to his readiness for the college game.
"With FC Dallas, I played all the reserve games, and playing against professional players was a really great experience," Ambrose said. "Winning a U-18 national championship and my caps with the national team prepared me for the pressure that comes with big games."
The maturity and poise the duo has displayed throughout the season will be important as the year progresses. ACC champion Maryland enters the NCAA tournament as the second overall seed and will face the either Brown or Drexel in the second round Sunday at 5 p.m. at Ludwig Field.
Edwards believes the group is ready to go to battle with some of the nation's best teams in this year's challenging field.
"I'm very confident because of how we're playing," Edwards said. "I feel like we're ready to go."
For young players, the major problem with advancing a level in competition is not always the physical transition, but rather having the mental strength to cope with the added pressure. Both freshmen credit Cirovski, no stranger to big games, for helping them become mentally ready for every match.
"He mentally prepares us for the game," Ambrose said. "He makes sure the intensity level is good and he is always focusing on defense."
Cirovski has good reason, too. With both freshmen having solidified their starting spots, he must make sure his star newcomers are in it for the long haul.
That will be important, because this season, the Maryland men's soccer team does not have any plans of going home early, not if this duo has anything to say about it.
"The first goal is to win the ACC regular season, the second goal is to win the ACC championship and the third goal is to win the national championship," Ambrose said. "That's what we want to do."