It was a chilly night but that did not deter the Ram faithful from coming out to support their team. The stands were a sea of hoodies and soccer scarves as fans prepared to welcome back men’s soccer. After holding off the #1 team Notre Dame until the 106th minute in double OT on the road, the VCU Rams returned home for their first A-10 Conference game against the GMU Patriots. The Rams played an extremely challenging pre-season schedule as Coach Dave Giffard looked to give them some strong conditioning before official conference play kicked off. The Patriots came into the game with a 7-0-2 record and the Rams were 3-6-1; however, the difference in the teams pre-season would pay off. The Rams intensive schedule set them up for success and they gave the Patriots their first loss in a shutout of the #20 team putting 3 goals (Kharlton Belmar 2, Dakota Barnathan 1) on the board and getting their first conference win.
It’s no secret that Coach Dave Giffard wants his team and program to perform well and compete at the highest level. He came to VCU to build a program that could win not just their conference, but an NCAA title and you don’t do that without preparation. In their out of conference schedule VCU has played 5 teams Giffard considers contenders for the national championship and a lot of those were on the road. Giffard said “We have aspirations for this program (and this team) to compete and to challenge at that level the only way you can truly measure yourself and really be in the hunt is to go and play those teams…to take the punch and to try to give your punch.” Adding that when you play against good teams some are going to go your way and some aren’t.
The pre-season results didn’t align with what Coach Giffard had hoped, but “it allowed us to see with this team where we’re weak, where we’re strong, some adjustments that we’ve got to make, some things we have to look at in training and improve upon and I think that we were able to do that.” Senior Kharlton Belmar, who scored 2 of the 3 VCU goals, said that “We wanted to get off to the A-10 with a good start. We’ve had a tough slate of games and we knew we were going to be prepared”. He and Ritchie Duffie spent a lot of time over the last week working on their runs in the box and on a partnership on the field. Giffard was happy with the significant improvement made by Belmar and Duffie the past week in training as the 2 strikers learned how to move in combination with each other to create opportunities.
Coach told Belmar pre-game he was going to score and the senior delivered his first goal in the 3rd minute off a rebound and his second in the 16th minute off a pass from Duffie. A little on the team inside joke, or what Giffard calls “state secrets” – “Sometimes as a coach you just have a hunch”. Over his last 10-12 years, he’s had a few. Coach says he doesn’t know if you are “fortunate or lucky or you can just kind of feel it coming” and his success rate is 10 for 10 of telling someone before the game they are going to score. When he approaches the player he tells them “You’re gonna score and when you do you come give me a little love”.
Belmar not only delivered on the goals he remembered to show that love. His first hug was a leap at the coach who said “I’ve had a few guys a little bigger than Kharlton jump on me so I was ready – my knees were bent. Lift with your knees not your back, right?” Giffard is serious about soccer, but also has a great sense of humor that he likes to throw in. He then added “I wish I could go tell everyone before the game they were going to score and they’d score”. Trust me when I say coach that as fans we’d like that too.
Some overall thoughts on the game as coach took us on a quick trip back to the game against Chapel Hill. During the first 20 -25 minutes VCU had to catch up with the speed of play that NC was already used to and coming into this game the Patriots faced that with the Rams. GMU didn’t have as an intensive pre-season schedule so they had to adjust to the VCU pace. Giffard also said that sometimes it’s a good thing to score 2 minutes into the game, sometimes it’s not referencing the Bakersfield game that ultimately ended in an OT tie. This game he didn’t think the Rams played their best in the first half with GMU but they created a couple of good chances and scored 2 goals. “Goals hide an awful lot of other things and they also give you a lot of confidence so I was pleased with our guys…on the night we got the result, we got the 3 points to start off league play, and on we go.” Looks like coach is planning the next thing for his team to work on, but by the smiles on the faces of Ram fans leaving the stadium it was still counted as a happy ending for the frozen faithful.
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