Nikki Izzo-Brown’s West Virginia University women’s soccer team may be spending a week in Texas, but she considers it far from being a vacation.
After depositing Texas 1-0 last Friday night to secure the school’s first outright Big 12 title in any sport, Izzo-Brown chose to travel from Austin down to San Antonio before facing eighth-seeded TCU in the opening round of the Big 12 championships at Blossom Soccer Stadium on Wednesday evening.
Considering the problems Hurricane Sandy has created along the East Coast, Izzo-Brown’s decision to remain in Texas was a wise one.
“The travel back (to Morgantown) would have been awful and now with the weather, it would have been even crazier,” Izzo-Brown said. “This was our better bet because the travel would have been very difficult.”
In the meantime, Izzo-Brown and her staff have set up shop at their hotel getting their team prepared for their first round match against Texas Christian.
“(Assistant coach) Marisa (Kanella) did a fantastic job of bringing down all of our files because we didn’t know who we would have,” Izzo-Brown said. “We have all of our video stuff and then we had someone Fed Ex another game down to us here (yesterday).”
Izzo-Brown said the Big 12 has also been very helpful finding the team a place to train until Wednesday.
“We’re just trying to stick with our routine as much as possible, but we’re also trying to break it up,” she explained. “This is no vacation and everybody knows that, but we went to the Alamo (on Monday) so we are trying not to allow them to look at four walls all day long. We’re trying to find a balance where it’s not a vacation but kind of breaking it up and making sure they are enjoying themselves, but also recognizing that we are here to win a championship.”
Being in a position to win a Big 12 tournament championship seemed a bit of a stretch a couple of months ago when the Mountaineers were struggling against teams such as La Salle, Central Michigan and Duquesne.
But since tying Purdue on Sept. 9, West Virginia has won nine straight with a 1-1 tie to Baylor being its only blemish. In fact, the Mountaineers were just 13 seconds away from having a clean slate in the Big 12 this season.
Izzo-Brown admits the difference between now and then is day and night. She said it was a matter of her team discovering its identity.
“We didn’t know who we were yet and what we were trying to do,” she noted. “We had it all down on paper but then applying it was a little bit different and I think we kind of settled in, made some changes and we were able to figure that out. And the team really adjusted well to all of the adversity going on.”
Right off the bat, Izzo-Brown’s defense took a big hit when top recruit Carly Black injured her knee during preseason practice. Black was expected to help make up for the losses of Caroline Szwed (out for the season with a knee injury) and three starting defenders to graduation before going down just days before the opener against La Salle.
Black’s injury was a big blow to the defense and it took the team a while to adjust.
“We took some hits and had to adjust players to different positions,” Izzo-Brown said. “(Senior) Mallory Smith was one of them and then (freshman) Leah Emaus, I recruited her as a midfielder, and then we put her back and (sophomore) Jess Crowder became our right back and she has played absolutely fantastic.”
More than half of West Virginia’s goals this year have come from two players – Kate Schwindel and Frances Silva – but Izzo-Brown said the rest of her young team is beginning to really pick up the slack. Fifteen of West Virginia’s 33 goals have been scored after the 61st minute of games this year.
“It’s been wild,” Izzo-Brown admitted. “(Junior) Kara Blosser scored for us at UT last Friday night and she came through for us big time. She also scored for us against Baylor. Then Kelsie Maloney gets one for us. We’re obviously a little heavy with Schwinny and Fran, but I think everybody else has stepped up, too, and I’m hoping that will give us some momentum going in.”
Despite going 7-0-1 in league play this season (the Mountaineers are 11-3-4 overall and will be making their 13th straight NCAA appearance since 2000), Izzo-Brown knows this week’s tournament will not be a cakewalk. With the exception of the tie to Baylor, all but one of West Virginia’s league games this year were decided by a one-goal margin, including a 2-1 victory at TCU on Sept. 28.
Plus, West Virginia is the new kid on the block this year trying to familiarize itself with a brand new tournament setup at Blossom Stadium.
“It’s been like this all year,” Izzo-Brown said. “We are the ones trying to figure things out but it is what it is. We’re not going to make excuses. Everybody knows this. “
Playing the conference tournament in San Antonio means that if the Mountaineers are fortunate enough to advance to Sunday’s mid-afternoon championship game, they will not return to Morgantown until early Monday morning, giving them less time to prepare for the NCAA tournament the following week.
“We will get back to Morgantown and find out our bid and if we win, hopefully it will be at home, but it’s crazy,” she said.
Tomorrow evening, West Virginia is facing an improving TCU team that upset Texas just nine days ago.
“It’s going to be another tough game,” Izzo-Brown said. “They have gotten better and it will be interesting because they beat Texas and they have had some really good results after us. It’s going to be a battle.”
Wednesday’s match is scheduled to get underway at 6:30 p.m. (EST) and a live stream will be available on Big12sports.com.