James Madison University men’s soccer head coach Paul Zazenski had three goals for the program when he came to Harrisonburg in 2015; win conference championships, be at the front of the national scene and produce high level professional players. In the past few years Zazenski and JMU soccer have done just that. Four Dukes have been drafted into Major League Soccer (MLS) in the past five seasons.

One of those players is 2021 graduate and former JMU goalkeeper TJ Bush. During his five-year career with JMU, Bush became the all-time program leader in shutouts and finished third in the country with an .882 save percentage in his senior season.

“My time at JMU definitely shaped me into the player and person I am now. In my eyes, 2018 was the first season where we realized that we could do some special things with JMU. All of the coaches did a great job setting that culture,” Bush said.

Bush’s coaches were a major part of his success at JMU and helped “get back on track and check myself to make sure I was progressing.”

“The first person I go back to is Adam Perron, who was with us in 2018. He really helped me realize my potential as a goalkeeper,” Bush said. “Without him, I don’t know what trajectory I would have been on. Everyday, all of the coaches kept me honest. This just goes back to the JMU culture and it is something that they preach in every single meeting that we had.”

Bush also took away a winning mentality from his time at JMU and has applied that to his professional career. This mentality has allowed Bush to lead his team, South Georgia Tormenta FC, to a USL League One championship in Nov. 2022. The win signified the club’s first-ever professional title.

“We focused on finding a way to win, no matter the circumstance or adversity,” Bush said. “In the professional world there are a lot of ups and downs, a lot of trials and tribulations. It’s about finding that way to fight through whatever’s going on. Keeping that mindset has been huge for me to persevere through the noise and be successful.”

Zazenski and Bush had a strong relationship during his career and have maintained that since his graduation two years ago.

“TJ is one of the best goalkeepers that have ever played in the program. He was a captain and a four-year starter, which is pretty rare in Division I college soccer, “ Zazenski said. “He was the epitome of what you want out of a student-athlete. We’ve maintained contact and I’ve watched a lot of his games and the program has been behind his professional journeys. We are very proud of him and his efforts.”

To Bush, his relationship with Zazenski and the coaching staff is special because “they genuinely care how I’m doing. It’s not just a surface level relationship, it’s a real relationship that’s going to last forever because they want the best for me.”

In Dec. 2022, Bush’s teammate Tyler Clegg was drafted into MLS as the 85th pick by the Portland Timbers. During his career as a three-year captain, Clegg helped lead the team to three Colonial Athletic Association titles and make a championship run in the Sun Belt Conference this year.

Like Bush, Clegg attributes JMU’s professional pipeline to “players pushing each other and the coaching staff pushing us every single day in training to make sure we improve individually and as a team.”

Early on during his time at JMU, Clegg didn’t understand why Zazenski pushed him so hard. Reflecting on it as an alum, Clegg appreciates how he developed as a player because of Zazenski’s coaching.

“It took me a while to understand that he wanted the best for me on the field and was pushing me to be my best self,” Clegg said. “As the years went on, our relationship grew more and more as I really understood that he was being tough on me because he knew what my potential was. He knew that he could make a great player out of me, so I really respect that from him.”

After being in the professional sphere for a few months now, Clegg has seen a different level of toughness as players are now fighting for their jobs, not just a spot on a collegiate team. Clegg’s years at JMU taught him to “fight through adversities” such as a rigorous playing schedule and balancing athletics and academics.

JMU’s pipeline to the pros doesn’t stop with Clegg and Bush. They join six other former Dukes to be drafted into the MLS, all in the last 16 years.

“It shows that people are aware of our guys and our program. Not only in college, but in the professional world, people are taking a look at our guys. We’re really proud that those players were able to get drafted and we hope that in the future, we can continue to have that track record of players not only being drafted, but just playing professionally in general,” Zazenski said.

In order to prepare his players for the next level and continue to get interest, Zazenski instills the same standards in the JMU team through daily practices and expectations.

“Our program does a good job of maintaining a professional environment on a daily basis,” Zazenski said. “Our training and the way that we conduct our program sets up players for the professional game. We take things seriously on and off the field, and we try to prepare each day for our craft. We hope that we can set them up for success to the best of our abilities within the program.”

For Bush, JMU’s continual success with developing players comes back to “the culture that Coach Zazenski has set” and consistently getting to the “big stage” to compete for conference championships.

Clegg knows that under Zazenski and his coaching staff, JMU will continue to compete at a high level and garner more professional attention down the road.

“I know there’s going to be more players in the coming years that are going to go professional because of the work Coach Zazenski has done and the work the team does on the field every day,” Clegg said.

Although he misses being around his teammates on a daily basis, he is ready to watch JMU compete for a Sun Belt championship and make an NCAA tournament run. In the meantime, Clegg is looking forward to the next steps in his professional career.

“I’m really looking forward to trying to sign a first team contract next year and just keep working towards my goal of becoming the best player that I can be,” Clegg said.

After two years in the professional league, Bush advises any aspiring professional players to “be willing to find something you can work on and do all the extra things, not just what is asked of you.”

Zazenski recently signed a contract extension through the 2026 season and will continue to prepare the team for high level competition. He wants to encourage players to “do the best each day within the environment that you’re in.”

In future years, Zazenski will uphold the same team values to lead the team to success.

“We work hard every single day to represent the history of the program and represent ourselves in one of the toughest conferences in the entire country,” Zazenski said. “Each day that we go out to play, we’re playing against some of the best teams and we value ourselves as one of the best teams in the country. We hope to continue that trajectory and be on the national stage gaining exposure and competing in one of the best conferences in the entire land.”