Nikki Izzo-Brown has been down this road many, many times before – watch her West Virginia women's soccer team struggle early in the season before discovering themselves and going on a big run at the end of the year.
Last season, the Mountaineers were just 2-3 after their first five games, including suffering an embarrassing 5-0 defeat at Penn State, only to produce a 15-1 record over their next 16 games on the way to capturing another Big East title and making their 12th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
Two years ago, in 2010, West Virginia was also 2-3 after its first five games and was only 4-4-1 after nine games before running off 14 straight victories and beating USF in the Big East tournament championship game on the way to another NCAA tournament “Sweet 16” appearance.
In 2009, same deal – WVU won two of its first eight matches, including a depressing 1-1 tie to woeful Pitt, before winning seven of its next 12 to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament.
And, in 2005, the Mountaineers were 3-3-3 after their first nine matches with three straight ties to Richmond, William & Mary and Syracuse before ripping off wins in eight of their next nine matches to make another trip to the NCAA tournament.
So when West Virginia dropped two of its first three matches of the regular season to La Salle and Central Michigan, Izzo-Brown did what she always does when she has a young team that is still trying to figure each other out – she rolled up her sleeves, went back into her laboratory and came up with a new formula for winning.
And what did she come up this time?
Perhaps the finest victory in school history on Sunday afternoon at Penn State when the Mountaineers knocked off top-ranked Stanford, 1-0, on a goal in the 83rd minute by junior forward Frances Silva
– who just happens to be one of the few upperclassmen Izzo-Brown has at her disposal this year.
In fact, 20 of the team’s 28 players on this year’s roster are freshmen, sophomores or transfers, with four of those freshmen currently in the starting lineup. Izzo-Brown knew this team would eventually jell but she just wasn’t quite sure it would happen so soon, or against such a quality opponent like Stanford.
“Of course we had a game plan and you can always give it to a player and say ‘this is what I want you to do’ but for them to turn around and execute it, I think is critical,” she said. “We beat a fantastic team in Stanford. They are just an awesome, awesome team, so it was a great win for us today.”
Izzo-Brown has had some terrific moments during her 17-plus seasons at WVU – capturing three Big East titles, knocking off soccer powers Notre Dame, Connecticut, Virginia and Penn State, just to name a few – but this one has to rank right up there with the best, especially when considering all of the difficulties this team has endured so far.
“To me, all the Big East championships … and I do strongly believe that Elite Eight game when we had close to 5,000 fans (against eventual national champion USC), that is always close to my heart, but this to me was real special just because for the team,” Izzo-Brown admitted. “We’ve been so injured; we’re young, and for them to kind of grasp this was real special for me, so it’s up there.”
As she walked over to shake Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe’s hand after her players poured onto the field in wild celebration, Izzo-Brown couldn’t help but marvel at what Radcliffe has done with Stanford's program and all of the elite players he had on the field Sunday afternoon.
“I talked to Paul at the end of the game, and obviously he was very complimentary and you feel a little bit bad for them, but at the end of the day I’m like, ‘You haven’t lost many games, so I don’t feel bad for you at all,’” she said, only half-jokingly. “He’s not used to that, but he was great and what these girls did today was unbelievable. These girls definitely beat a giant today.”
And now, for knocking off the No. 1 team in the country, West Virginia gets the treat of facing the nation’s No. 3 team on Friday night at Dick Dlesk Stadium when Penn State comes to town. The two programs have developed a pretty good little rivalry over the years, both during the regular season and in post-season play.
Therefore, the Mountaineers have little time to soak in their monumental accomplishment because they are facing an equally daunting task on Friday night.
“Man, what coach did this? I keep saying what an idiot - and that would be me,” Izzo-Brown laughed. “Strength of schedule is huge. Penn State, I got to see them Friday night, and there is another giant coming to town, so we need fans to get out at 7 p.m. at Dick Dlesk Stadium and let’s bring some Mountaineer spirit.”
WVU has definitely recaptured some of its winning spirit on Sunday afternoon – something Izzo-Brown’s teams usually seem to do about this time of year.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores this fall. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.