Sebastien Ibeagha went from a penalty-card machine to a team captain, and from tallying one goal in his first two seasons to leading the team in scoring his junior year. But the junior would not have become one of the team’s stars without tackling his early-career setbacks.
“He’s come along leaps and bounds in all aspects of his game,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “He’s been a real joy to coach this year because I see so much maturity in his approach and his ideas, and for us he saves one or two goals a game just by being Seb.”
The defender picked up five yellow cards and two red cards last season. He drew three more cards than anybody else on the team and was the only player to pick up multiple red cards, which force a player to leave the game and sit out the ensuing one.
Always quick to leave his feet and lunge into reckless challenges, he did not display the maturity of a team leader.
“When I came in I was a hothead," he said. "But I've become a lot calmer as a player."
The turning point in the Texan’s collegiate career was a Nov. 1, 2011 matchup against Elon, in which he was issued a red card in overtime. Stuck in a 2-2 deadlock against an overmatched Phoenix squad, the Blue Devils battled to maintain the draw a man down.
“After that game I had a reality check,” Ibeagha said. “We almost lost to Elon. We should have won that game. I put my team in a really bad position for the overtime period. Since then I’ve tried to keep my penalty cards to a minimum.”
Ibeagha cited his professional aspirations as an additional reason for staying level-headed on the field.
“Being calm as a player—knowing that you can work through adversity—is a great quality to have,” Ibeagha said. “If I can show that on the field, it makes my stock a lot higher in terms of teams actually wanting me.... I definitely want to play professionally after I leave college.”
In addition to maintaining his composure, Ibeagha has shown development on the offensive end of the field this season, despite his role as a defender. Scoring one goal in his first two years at Duke, Ibeagha did not carry responsibilities beyond anchoring the defensive unit.
This season, Ibeagha has continued to bear that responsibility, guiding a back four that has allowed less than one goal per game and demonstrated solidarity against some of the toughest opponents in the country, as exemplified by one-goal losses to No. 1 Maryland and No. 2 North Carolina. He is balancing more on his plate this year, however, assuming a leadership role on the squad as a team captain and serving as the go-to guy for set pieces, which account for four of his five tallies this season. He ranks first in scoring on the team and is tied for 10th in the ACC.
“He’s leading by example and talking a lot more, communicating with the defenders and the midfielders,” Kerr said. “Anytime we have a corner kick or a free kick we send Sebastien up, and we know that he’s going to take away the other team’s best marker. He has created a lot of havoc in the areas where we’ve capitalized in terms of dangerous free kicks.”
Ibeagha has filled a void for struggling forward and midfield players, who have combined for only five goals this season. Two of these goals were early-season tallies from sophomore Nick Palodichuk, who is sidelined for the rest of the season due to injury. The Blue Devils lost their top two scoring threats from last year, Andrew Wenger and Christopher Tweed-Kent, to the No. 1 pick in the MLS SuperDraft and graduation, respectively.
“We’re really missing Nick Palodichuk, and Luis Rendon has been injured most of the season,” Kerr said. “When these instances happen and you lose a Chris Tweed-Kent and an Andrew Wenger the year before, it’s a tough position to be in. Sebastien has really done a great job of helping us through that this season.”
And with the maturity and skill Ibeagha has demonstrated on the field this season, Kerr is confident that he has what it takes to thrive in the professional ranks.
“He’s going to be a big star someday,” Kerr said.