Amherst’s Thompson returns
Lord Jeffs’ head coach heads back to Colby this weekend
Less than a year after he left Colby College, Amherst head coach Jon Thompson is looking forward to going back on Saturday.
“I’m so excited,” Thompson said. “I’m so anxious. I’m a little bit tired from preparing as much as we did. I’m eager to see campus again. I’m eager to see the 40 guys on that roster that I felt that I was pretty close with.”
Still, given the way Thompson’s new team at Amherst has performed, there’s little question he made the right move.
Heading into Saturday afternoon’s meeting with the Mules, the Lord Jeffs – a .500 team a year ago - have won ten consecutive games, going unbeaten since their season-opening loss to No. 1 Tufts. The win streak included a pair of milestone victories last week, as the Lord Jeffs beat Middlebury on April 6 for the first time since 1989, and then turned around three days later to beat archrival Williams. The victories were also enough to earn NESCAC Player of the Week honors for junior goalkeeper Sam Jakimo, who made 12 saves in the win over the Panthers and a career-high 20 in the win over the Ephs, and to put the Lord Jeffs at No. 10 in the USILA Division III Coaches’ Poll.
Still, a hard-fought 7-6 win against Springfield on Wednesday night was enough to put those wins firmly in the rearview mirror.
“Those two wins feel like they were a month ago,” Thompson said. “We’re so happy that we were able to beat a very good Springfield team. That’s a team that I think is incredibly underrated. They’re well-coached, and they have some athletes who can shoot the ball as well as anybody we’ve seen.”
As well as the Pride can shoot the ball, however, the Amherst defense was equal to the task of stopping them, with Jakimo making eight saves to run his record to 10-0 since taking over for Amherst near halftime of the game against Tufts. The native of Woodbury, N.Y., leads the NESCAC in save percentage and saves per game, and with his honor this week, became the first Amherst player to win outright Player of the Week honors since 2004.
“He has been absolutely critical,” Thompson said of Jakimo’s role in the turnaround. “He didn’t have the preseason he would have liked to have, but since the second half of that Tufts game, he’s been absolutely outstanding. He’s seeing the ball incredibly well. His reflexes have been getting sharper, and they’re as sharp as I’ve seen in a Division III goalie, maybe ever. He’s certainly one of top couple of goalies I’ve coached in Division III, and his ability to get the ball up and out of his stick is a close second in terms of his strengths. He’s starting the offense for us, he’s stopping the shots he should, and he’s stealing a few that maybe he shouldn’t every game. He’s become a sparkplug for our team in his own quiet way.”
When Greg Majno started in the cage for the Lord Jeffs in their season opener with the reigning NCAA Division III Champions, it seemed unlikely that Jakimo would wind up being the sparkplug, but even before Majno allowed eight goals on his first 13 shots to give Jakimo a chance, the Syosset High School grad had shown himself to be a valuable contributor.
“He’s been a model in terms of being a terrific teammate,” Thompson said, “when maybe he wasn’t as excited as he was last year, going from the starter to the backup, and wouldn’t you know it, he knew his number was going to be called in that Tufts game, and in that second half, he stood on his head for us, and ever since then, he’s been rolling.”
With Jakimo holding things down in the cage and serving as a sparkplug to jumpstart the Lord Jeffs’ offense, Amherst has been able to win in many different kinds of games over the course of their 10-game streak. From a 10-3 win over Connecticut College on March 19 and the 7-6 win over Springfield to a 17-9 win over Wheaton (Mass.) on March 29 and a 15-8 win over Bates three days later, the Lord Jeffs have been able to win with offense, defense or a combination of the two, as the situation demands.
“It’s nice to be able to win games differently,” Thompson said. “Earlier in the year, we were winning games in shootouts, and that felt nice. Later in the year, as our defense has matured and progressed, we’ve been able to win games because of our defense and goaltending. To be able to win games both ways sure does feel nice.”
Thompson saw the potential all along when he came to Amherst, leaving a NESCAC rival in Colby to do so.
“You have to have a sense of your opponents,” Thompson said. “I sure as heck knew that there was some talent here. I also knew there was a very good recruiting class coming in. Tom Carmean left us with a very good class, and I had recruited a bunch of these guys, and I knew that there was a high level of character in the freshman class, and there was a high level of ability in the freshman class. When you combine that with our older guys who had the experience, I knew that the recipe could be there for success. Can I tell you that I knew we were going to be as successful as we have been? No. I think that the willingness to prepare on our defensive end has sparked a run that, maybe, none of us expected. I’m pleasantly pleased with the progress that we’ve made over the last three weeks.”
Now, having coached them for most of a season, Thompson knows that there’s more yet to be had for his team.
“I don’t think we’re there yet,” Thompson said. “I know that everybody is going to say, ‘They’re a top 10 team, it sounds like they’re there to me.’ I don’t think we’re there yet. I honestly think that our defense still has its best days ahead of it. As we get healthy offensively, we’re going to get a shot in the arm when we get some of our best offensive talent back. As we mature offensively, I think we have some of our best days ahead of us, and I hope that we get the opportunity to prove that in postseason play.”
What the Lord Jeffs do with that opportunity remains to be seen, but they’ve shown so far that when given an opportunity, they know how to make it count.