Welcome back for another season of Inside the 18! I’m not quite in game shape, but I’ll give it a go…
I got an e-mail the other day from a lovely woman who wanted me (me!?) to help advise her grandson who is being recruited by several different programs. Apparently there are various Division I schools that are interested him, some being in “major” conferences and some from classic “mid-major” programs. He seems to want to go to play on the best team in the best league, while she maintained that schools from other leagues can also provide the opportunity to win a national championship. The subject title of the e-mail was: “What to do?”
In my classic non-committal Zundell style, my answer was, “It depends.”
The woman was right about the ability of a school outside of a major conference to win a national championship. College soccer has no resemblance to the BCS in which just a few schools are invited to the party. The Akron Zips, playing out of the MAC, were one penalty kick away from completing a perfect season and winning a national championship in 2009, and Caleb Porter has things built for the long haul there. And look at WVU’s early season non-conference schedule. If you glanced and saw Monmouth, UNC Wilmington and William & Mary, you would’ve thought that Marlon LeBlanc was lining up cupcakes before the BIG EAST schedule. But, look closer, and you see that Monmouth was undefeated for a large portion of the season in 2009 and came into Morgantown ranked ninth in the country; UNC Wilmington won its league and advanced into the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year and was ranked 17th in the country; and senior-laden William & Mary is also nationally ranked.
These schools aren’t traditional powers, but it just goes to show that there are good teams in all kinds of different places regardless of conference affiliation. One of the main reasons is scholarships. Many people don’t know that in men’s college soccer, the maximum number of scholarships that can be given out is 9.9. That’s not even one full ride per starter on a roster of somewhere around 25.
Consider that Division I football’s maximum scholarship is 85, which means that a program can offer a full scholarship to an entire offense and defense each year. And during a game, if a team uses 50 players in a game that means you have 35 players on full scholarships that did not see any action. This isn’t a criticism of football scholarships or players – football virtually funds everything else. The point is, though, that major college programs can take chances on guys and stockpile talent, while in college soccer, there is not much room for error in evaluating players and that the talent is much more spread out.
So yes, teams anywhere from Akron to Tulsa to Monmouth to UC Santa Barbara can win a national championship. But, there are things major conferences can offer that the smaller ones cannot. One of those is consistent, high quality challenges throughout the season. The top of the MAC offers Akron, but at the bottom is Bowling Green. In the major conferences, there are tough games virtually every time out.
The other thing that the major conferences can provide is the heated rivalries that often translate to a good college atmosphere. Notre Dame elicits a certain reaction (read: hatred) from WVU fans no matter what the sport is, as does Pitt. Those kinds of entrenched rivalries that live within a conference are difficult to duplicate and give a regular season game some added interest.
So, there are two lessons to come from this. One, don’t ask me for advice on making any kind of decision, especially one as enormous as college decisions; and two, you can win a national championship almost anywhere, it just is probably more fun when you play in a major conference. ***
No one should be worried about WVU’s 3-3 start on the women’s side. The last time the Mountaineers were .500 through six games of the season was 2006, and in fact, WVU proceeded to tie its next three matches and start the year 3-3-3. That year ended OK for the Mountaineers as they finished with a 12-6-3 record and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Any cause for concern would be from the fact that WVU had leads in two of its three losses but could not hold on.
As for the men, the Mountaineers would love to get a little breathing room from .500 this weekend. As I stated last season down the stretch, there’s not much room for error in a field of 48. The Mountaineers don’t have a bad loss, but taking care of business against solid squads this weekend would be a good confidence boost and hopefully the right kind of lift as WVU starts into conference play.
See you next time!