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Junior Jerel Blades's ability to spark a quick counter-attack on the wing is crucial for the team's success this season. 

Credit: Ananya Chandra

Speed kills – and Penn men’s soccer has plenty.

It all starts with Jerel Blades. The winger is on the small side — only 5-foot-7 — but he doesn’t let that affect him. After all, the defense has to catch him first.

“As you get the mileage and go through the year, [you] figure out how to use your center of gravity better. It’s not only about lifting and getting bigger but balance and quickness,” Blades said.

“The larger center-backs in the [Ivy] League probably struggle with smaller, quicker forwards. There’s some really good, athletic defenders so it will be fun to watch [Blades] go up against them,” coach Rudy Fuller noted.

Blades’ counterpart on the other wing is sophomore sensation Dami Omitaomu. Omitaomu is just as tall as his fellow winger, but the sophomore has a knack for getting to balls that impresses even Blades.

“If you see Dami play, and there’s a ball 25 or 30 yards away from him, he has the determination to get there. He’s a small guy, and he’s always competing,” Blades said.

Fuller understands first-hand just how important his wingers are to his team. Much of the offense early in the season has been generated down the sides, whether it has been putting Omitaomu or Blades through behind the defense or relying on them to create chances through a cross.

“I think we have some quality wingers. We feel like we’re not a one-dimensional team. We’re a much more balanced team this year,” Fuller said. “We have some pace outside with Dami and Jerel that can get in behind. The goal is to score goals.”

That goal has been a fruitless one so far. Two games into the season, the Quakers have yet to put the ball in the back of the net while conceding four goals. The defending troubles are worrying for a team that had the same issue for large stretches last year.

“When you give up as many goals as we did last year, one of the things that is a focus this year is being more sound defensively,” Fuller said.

Fuller suggested that in his 4-2-3-1 system, the wingers, although responsible for much of the play-making and creativity on offense, have large defensive roles as well. For a player like Omitaomu or Blades, that means playing box-to-box — a huge area to cover effectively for 90 minutes.

That’s where the substitutes come in. Freshmen Wes Maki and Jake Kohlbrenner have both already earned playing time on the flanks. The two provide the ability to give the more experienced Blades and Omitaomu a breather without sacrificing too much in terms of pace or quality.

Omitaomu has been a bright spot for the Quakers of late, extending as far back as his freshman year. He has the skill and speed to cause problems for Ivy League defenders all game long, and proved his ability to create quality chances last year. This year, however, the tape is out there. Omitaomu won’t have the benefit of surprising defenders with his wicked speed.

“The expectations are higher for him now,” Fuller said. “This year everybody knows about him. I think he would tell you that he’s got to get better, and I have confidence that he’ll have another great year.”

Another great year for Omitaomu, Blades and the rest of the wingers would be a crucial part of a Penn title run. The message to the rest of the Ancient Eight is simple: speed kills.