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Vol. LXII, No. 51
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
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(Photo courtesy of Amherst College Sports Information)

MOONSTRUCK: James Mooney, left, heads a ball this fall during his freshman season with the Amherst College men’s soccer team. Mooney, a Princeton native and former Lawrenceville School standout, emerged as a key performer in the midfield for the Lord Jeffs as they advanced to the NCAA Division III Final Four.

Princeton Native Mooney Stars in Midfield as Amherst Men’s Soccer Makes Final Four

Bill Alden

James Mooney isn’t the kind of soccer player who immediately catches your eye.

The 5’11, 163-pound Mooney isn’t a prolific goal scorer nor does he possess dazzling ball skills.

Instead, Mooney’s forte centers around doing the grunt work on the field, chasing down balls and making the most of the chances that he creates through his hustle.

Making the move from the Lawrenceville School boys’ team to Amherst College men’s squad this fall, the Princeton native was a little-used reserve in the early stages of the season as the Lord Jeffs got off to a pedestrian 5-3 start.

But gaining the confidence of his coaches and his teammates through his work rate and knack for coming up with clutch plays, Mooney worked his way into the starting lineup.

“In the beginning I was playing up front because the coach liked the way I chased the ball down,” said Mooney, who helped the Princeton Union 90 club team win the U-16 New Jersey Cup title in 2007.

“Later on I moved to a midfield role on the wing; doing a lot of running. I really liked it.”

As Mooney’s role increased, the Lord Jeffs caught fire, putting together a 10-0-3 run on the way to winning the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) title and advancing to the NCAA Division III Final Four.

While the Lord Jeffs ended the season on a disappointing note by falling 4-1 to Steven Tech in the national semis to end 15-4-3, Mooney won’t soon forget his first college campaign.

“We were so excited to be there, it’s something you remember the rest of your life,” said Mooney. “There was so much emotion going into the game; it was such an intense experience.”

During the preseason, though, the intensity of college soccer presented a severe challenge for Mooney.

“It is a short preseason due to D-III rules but it was probably the most difficult preseason I have ever had,” asserted Mooney.

“We had three-a-day practices. We were getting up at 6:30 a.m., getting in seven or eight hours of soccer a day. I was focused on eating right and going to bed so I was rested. The first day started at 7 in the morning; we went to track where everybody had to run two miles in under 12 minutes. I did well in the run and that helped me fit in.”

Scoring his first college goal in a win over Suffolk in late September helped Mooney fit in even better with his teammates.

“We were up by a lot when I came in; I put away my first touch,” recalled Mooney.

“It felt really good; I started feeling a lot more confident because I knew I could score in college. I was feeling a lot more confident in practice and the coach gave me more chances to show myself and I started to play better and better.”

One of Mooney’s better moments of the season came when he scored a goal to help Amherst to a critical regular season win over Trinity (Conn.).

“Nicky Lynch sent a ball in and I one-timed it,” said Mooney. “It was probably my best goal of the season.”

Later in the NESCAC playoffs, Mooney scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Trinity although that strike wasn’t necessarily a thing of beauty.

“Everybody makes fun of that goal; it trickled by the goalie,” said Mooney with a chuckle. “Everybody on the sideline was kind of shocked but a goal is a goal. I was so excited.”

Mooney was excited to be a part of Amherst’s stunning NCAA tournament run which nearly ended in the opening round when the Lord Jeffs had to go to penalty shots to top Western New England College.

“After that first game, we felt it was our destiny to keep winning,” said Mooney.

“I have never been on a team with such a bond between players and the coaches. We wanted to keep playing and practicing; the coach [Justin Serpone] told us to see the outcome. We willed ourselves to win those games; we didn’t score many goals in the tournament.”

After the win over Western New England, Amherst edged St. Lawrence 1-0 in the second round and then nipped Swarthmore 1-0 in the Round of 16.

In the quarterfinals, the Lord Jeffs pulled out another squeaker as they edged Trinity (Texas) 1-0 to earn their ticket to the Final Four.

For Mooney, the post-game celebration after the Trinity win will stand out as a major highlight.”

“That was awesome; everyone was crying,” said Mooney. “It was a crazy experience. We scored in the last five minutes and the rest of the game was ecstasy.”

While the Amherst players were thrilled to make the Final Four for the first time since 1997, the extra time together may have been as meaningful as the achievement itself.

“The seniors had a big influence on the team; before every game you could see how much they cared,” said Mooney, who ended the season with four goals and an assist.

“Every game could be their last and we didn’t want it to end. We wanted to stay together and keep practicing. The first practice after we were back from the Trinity win, the ground was rock solid and it was freezing but we were so happy to be out there.”

Amherst head coach Serpone was certainly happy with the contribution he got from Mooney this fall.

“James has exceptional athleticism and speed,” said Serpone. “The wide midfield is a good spot for him. He gives us as much defensively as on offense because of his work rate. We joke with him that as a defensive midfielder, I want him to be an outside back and on offense, I want him to be an outside forward. You have to work your butt off in that position.”

Serpone acknowledges that appreciating Mooney’s game is an acquired taste. “He sort of goes under the radar; he doesn’t stand out at first glance,” said Serpone. “But you realize there is no down side to James. You get an honest effort; he can create things for the team. He’s not going to get intimidated and he is a handful for the other team.”

Mooney, for his part, is preparing to cause even more problems next season for Amherst’s foes.

“I want to try to have a more threatening role from the middle; I just want to up everything,” vowed Mooney.

“I started some games this year; I want to start most of them next year. The Final Four is always a goal; now that we have done it, we know what it takes.”

Mooney knows that it took hard work for him to become a key player for Amherst.

“I’d say I am a much better player now that I am accustomed to college soccer,” said Mooney.

“We worked really hard. At the beginning of season we had some bad games and coach got on us and ran us hard. I can see how that paid off.”

And giving the understated Mooney a prominent role this fall certainly paid off for the Lord Jeffs.

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