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A new stage for Eastern soccer is a familiar one for coaching staff

Eastern head coach Jeremy Payne and two of his assistants all won national championships as players at Messiah

When Eastern University takes the field on Saturday to play Rochester in a Division III NCAA Tournament third round match, it will be a first for the small liberal arts school in Radnor Township.

But for second-year head coach Jeremy Payne and two of his assistants, both the setting and the stage will be very familiar.

Payne was a two-time National Player of the Year and won back-to-back national championships at Messiah in 2012-13. His second-year assistant Benjamin Kennel was a teammate of Payne’s on those two national titles and first-year assistant Kirby Robbins was part of the program’s 11th national championship last year.

“We get to play Rochester for a chance to play in a quarterfinal.,” Payne said. “That’s our focus right now.”

Should they get by Rochester, their quarterfinal opponent could very well be top-ranked Messiah, which plays SUNY Cortland in the first game of the day on Saturday (kickoff at 11 a.m.). If things do play out that way, it would set up a Messiah alumni clash for the second Sunday in a row. To get to this stage for the first time in program history, Payne’s Eagles had to get by a Franklin & Marshall side coached by fellow Messiah alum Dan Wagner.

If the name Wagner sounds familiar, it’s because fellow Messiah alum Mark Wagner was the long-time head coach of the Eagles. Since stepping down as head coach at Eastern to focus on his growing soccer-related companies two years ago, Mark Wagner has helped out his brother at F&M as a part-time assistant. He was on the sidelines on Sunday night in Lancaster.

“It was the hardest game I’ve ever had to coach in my life by far,” Mark Wagner said. “Ten of those guys out there were players I recruited and coached for a couple years.”

Wagner’s son, Jonathan Wagner, was also on the opposite bench Sunday night. He’s a sophomore at Eastern who runs the social media accounts for the men’s soccer program.

Eastern prevailed 1-0 in Sunday’s game with the lone goal coming in the 9th minute from sophomore Sam Sutherland off an assist from senior Billy Walenda. Sophomore goalkeeper Anthony Hitchcock was key again — after saving a penalty and converting a PK to win a shootout against Mary Washington the night before — with five saves on the night.

“I thought we had a great performance against Franklin and Marshall and in both games getting an early goal was huge for us,” Payne said. “It allowed us to manage the match a little bit differently.”

The game wasn’t without controversy though as Eastern lost one of its leaders, senior midfielder Colin Furlong, to a bogus red card in the 87th minute. Furlong led the team in assists this season with 13 and also chipped in four goals, but he’ll have to serve a suspension on Saturday.

It certainly won’t be the first time this season the team has faced some adversity. They nearly saw their season end Saturday night after a mistake led to a counter attack goal in the 81st minute that tied the game, forcing their defense to sustain a barrage of attacks just to get to penalties. Mary Washington out-shot Eastern 12-1 in the second half and 4-2 in overtime.

Half of Eastern’s 18 wins have been of the 1-0 variety this season so they’ll be tested again by a Rochester team scoring nearly two goals a game while having conceded just 11 times in 18 matches. While the game was moved from Messiah to Rochester because of a Thursday snowstorm, it’s still scheduled to kick off at 1:30 p.m.

Mark Wagner will be back cheering on the program as a fan, feeling even better about his decision to step away — he says it was the hardest decision he’s ever made — when he did.

“Jeremy being an assistant in the program became a part of the decision-making process for me to feel comfortable stepping away because I cared about those guys, all those guys I unfortunately had to coach against the other night,” Wagner said. “Just seeing what he’s done and the how he’s gone about doing what he’s done is just confirmation that it was the right decision to recommend him for the job.”

Payne scored 61 goals and had 31 assists in his career in Grantham and played in the PDL with Southern West Virginia King’s Warriors for two summers. The experience has served Payne well in his adjustment from playing to coaching.

“Without a doubt I pull a lot from Messiah, a lot of what we do I think would be done at Messiah and they’ve been very successful,” Payne said. “But at the same time, we’re trying to build Eastern soccer.”

So far that’s gone well for Payne, who was the interim head coach for a few months before having that tag dropped ahead of the 2017 season. The Eagles went 13-4-2 in his first year, falling on PKs in their conference tournament final.

This weekend, he has a chance to guide Eastern even further.