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UC photo Camacho

Charleston junior midfielder Adrian Camacho dribbles the ball past Cal State Los Angeles midfielder Jorge Orellana during Saturday’s NCAA Division II men’s soccer final at Weidner Field in Colorado Springs, Colo.

It’s no secret that soccer teams in West Virginia produce fierce competition at a national level, and the University of Charleston’s men’s team is the epitome of a successful team representing the Mountain State.

The Golden Eagles have run the table in the Mountain East Conference in the past decade, winning seven straight conference titles. Most recently, UC has made the NCAA Division II Final Four three times since 2017, winning two national titles along the way (2017, 2019).

In 2021, the Golden Eagles were a win away from defending their 2019 title (there was no NCAA DII tournament in 2020 due to COVID-19), but fell to Cal State Los Angeles 1-0 in the national title game on Saturday in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Second-year head coach Daniel Smee, who has been with UC for five years, starting as an assistant in 2017, is continuing to build upon the winning foundation that former coaches Chris Grassie (current Marshall men’s coach) and Dan Stratford (current WVU men’s coach) established.

“I personally think as an individual it’s my greatest-ever achievement as a coach to get us to the final,” Smee said. “After having the COVID year and trying to follow up from [Stratford], who is a legend and good friend of mine, to get us to the final is huge and a testament to the staff and the student-athletes.”

It’s common for teams to regress after winning a championship, especially when a global pandemic rocks the world of sports in a way that hasn’t happened since World War II.

Smee and the Golden Eagles did not waver, though, going 10-0 in the abbreviated 2020 regular season before amassing a 19-2-3 record in 2021 en route to a national final appearance. Smee is now 29-2-3 as UC head coach.

The Golden Eagles were nearly unstoppable in 2021, losing just one game in the regular season (Sept. 15 to Davis & Elkins) before going undefeated for 19 games until the national title game.

“We went through a lot this year,” Smee said. “We had a loss early in the year to Davis & Elkins, I think it was our fourth game. Obviously when that happens you never really know how the season is gonna go and how the team is gonna react. To react by going undefeated the rest of the way until the final is a testament to the student-athletes.”

Smee touched on some of his key players this season, starting with forward Gabriel Rodriguez.

“He chose to come back to get a master’s when he probably could have left us and maybe signed a professional contract somewhere because of the quality of player he is,” Smee said. “He wanted to come back and use his final year of eligibility, so he came back and captained us and was joint leader in goals with 12.”

The other leader in goals with 12 was forward Alejandro Larrayoz.

“He maybe only started a few games for us all season but matched Gabriel for the number of goals despite playing less minutes,” Smee said of Larrayoz. “I truly believe either one of those two would start every game at any other Division II program.”

Defensively, Lucas Christensen was stellar for the Golden Eagles, leading the team in minutes with 1,947.

“He started every game except one, which was, unfortunately, the final,” Smee said. “He was a big loss for us in the final. He was sick. He played in the semifinal despite being under the weather and then a day before the final he just didn’t feel good.”

Christensen’s fellow first-string center back, Emil Rasmussen, was another workhorse for the Golden Eagles, with 1,926 minutes played as he started all 23 games this season.

“It was just a whole bunch of players everywhere,” Smee said. “Alexis Ledoux was All-American, Ploutarchos Alonetfi managed to get All-American. An exciting, almost dangerous player to watch was Adrian Camacho. He didn’t quite get the recognition he deserved. We could go on. Overall a quality group.”

Smee and his group figure to come back strong next season and he said he’s proud to be a key part of the Mountain State’s soccer success.

“The amount of messages and phone calls and well wishes that we received from people in the community is touching,” Smee said. “We know it’s a small state. For me it’s important that the state continues to do well in this sport.

“As long as myself and [Stratford and Grassie] are at these three programs, I’m sure they’ll continue to do that. Even Ollie Fisher down at West Virginia Tech. He does a great job. We love this state. We want it to do well.”