BLACKSBURG — At first glance, James Kasak, at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, doesn’t look like he would be a successful Division I college athlete, but don’t let that slight build fool you.
“He packs a punch for a little guy,” said Virginia Tech men’s soccer coach Mike Brizendine.
Kasak helped Riverheads win a soccer state championship last season. Well, “helped” may not be a strong enough word. Kasak scored 75 goals, had 28 assists and was named the 1A state player of the year. But that was high school and now Kasak is playing in college. He signed with Virginia Tech this past February and, while he’s only started one game, Kasak has seen significant playing time for the nationally ranked Hokies.
Kasak, who is averaging 41 minutes a game, has taken 13 shots, eight on goal, but doesn’t have a goal to show for it yet. He does have an assist. He’s played in all eight of Virginia Tech’s games this season.
“It’s like night and day,” Kasak said about the transition from high school to college soccer. “It’s a lot different. Everyone is faster and a lot stronger.”
Off the field, perhaps the biggest transition for Kasak has been the schedule. When Virginia Tech travels, Kasak said he typically misses two days of classes. The players do have mandatory study halls while on the road, but he still has to talk to his professors and classmates to find out what he missed while away. Time management skills have become crucial to his success in the classroom.
The former Riverheads star was joined at Virginia Tech by Burke Bender, who was named to the Group 3A all-state second team last year playing for Waynesboro. Bender has one goal on one shot after playing in seven of Tech’s eight matches this season. He’s averaging just over 18 minutes in the games he’s played coming off the bench.
Brizendine said he and his staff are very pleased with the performance of both Burke and Kasak so far. Virginia Tech is 7-1 and currently ranked No. 19 in the nation. Asked if it was unusual for freshmen to be playing so much for a nationally ranked team, the coach said perhaps a little, but at this level it’s more about talent than age.
“When they’re good enough, they’re good enough,” he said.
Burke, like Kasak, enrolled in summer school at Tech and has been in Blacksburg since early July. Throughout the summer, the players worked out once or twice a day. Burke said it was all about getting fit before the start of the season. Both athletes improved their two-mile time by over a minute in the summer by running most mornings and playing soccer games in the afternoon.
“It really gave us a head start to the beginning of preseason,” said Burke.
Kasak’s high school coach, Scott Harrison, isn’t surprised at all that his former player has had early success in Blacksburg. He has the speed and strength on the ball to compete at that level. Plus, his teams at both the high-school and travel-team level were successful. That gave him the experience needed to gain confidence.
“He knows what it takes to win,” said Harrison. “That’s an intangible that’s so hard to measure.”
Brizendine remembers watching Kasak in high school — Riverheads plays in Group 1A, the lowest level of the Virginia High School League —and knowing just how different things would be for him in college. It did help that Kasak played on an elite club team, Charlottesville-based SOCA, but there’s still an adjustment from that soccer to playing for a Division 1 team.
The Tech coach said Kasak picked up some bad habits in high school, specifically dribbling too much.
“He was successful most of the time and when he wasn’t no one cared,” Brizendine said of Kasak’s dribbling in high school.
Now, however, the coach said it’s very difficult to beat three or four guys. If you beat one, consider that a success. It’s one, maybe two touches, before it’s time to pass or shoot at the college level. Still, Kasak has plenty of upside.
“James buzzes around, has quickness,” said Brizendine. “He’s always about six inches from scoring every game.”
Burke, meanwhile, was recruited as a back, but Brizendine decided to play him up front, calling him a physically gifted player.
“His feet are good and he can jump out of a roof,” said Brizendine. “We needed someone up there to close out a game.”
Brizendine, a former Bridgewater College coach and James Madison University player, is in his eighth season as the head coach at Tech. With seven wins this season — the only loss Tech has is against then top-ranked Notre Dame — he’s already matched the most wins of any of his previous seasons. The best season before this year was 2014 when the Hokies finished 7-8-2, but maybe this year is a turning point for Virginia Tech soccer.
“We hope,” said Brizendine, whose team will be tested with five ranked teams remaining on their schedule. “There’s only a handful of programs in the country right now that have our record. We have a special group.”
Virginia Tech will be in Charlottesville Sept. 30 for a Friday night game against the University of Virginia. Both Burke and Kasak hope to see a lot of friendly faces in the crowd that night.
“From what we’ve heard there will be a few thousand people there,” said Burke. “We’re amped up to play there.”