|West Virginia coach Nikki Izzo-Brown has led the Mountaineers to four consecutive regular season conference championships dating back to 2010 in the Big East.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Another year means another conference championship for Nikki Izzo-Brown’s West Virginia University women’s soccer program.
The Mountaineers’ second Big 12 regular season title makes it four years in a row the WVU women have won conference regular season championships. West Virginia also claimed regular season titles the last two years it was in the Big East Conference in 2010 and 2011.
Izzo-Brown has done it with veteran teams, she’s done it with young teams, and, yes, sometimes it seems like she’s even had to use some smoke and mirrors to keep on winning. But her teams just win … and win … and win.
This year will be the 14th straight season that West Virginia is going to qualify for the NCAA women’s soccer tournament - a run of success that only 12 other programs in the sport right now can claim. We’re talking about the powerhouse teams in women’s college soccer such as North Carolina, Santa Clara, Notre Dame, Virginia, Penn State, Texas A&M, Wake Forest, UCLA, Stanford, Florida State and Portland.
There have been coaches in other sports at West Virginia that have experienced success, and some have even achieved great success for brief spurts before moving on to other programs, but it’s difficult to find a coach that has been as successful, and has done it for as long as Izzo-Brown has done it for WVU women’s soccer – a program she started back in 1996.
Today, almost 250 wins later, Izzo-Brown has built one of the marquee programs in the Big 12 Conference by blending potential-packed American players with elite-level Canadians. The Mountaineers went almost two full seasons before losing a regular season Big 12 match, that coming just nine days ago at 12th-ranked Texas Tech when the fired-up Red Raiders downed the Mountaineers, 2-0.
It was a contest Texas Tech clearly had circled on its calendar. Actually, all eight Big 12 teams now make West Virginia their red-letter game.
“The target is on our back and I think every team is gunning for us - or trying to disrupt us and just doing whatever they can to get the win,” Izzo-Brown said. “At the same token, we take that as a compliment, but we’ve also got to make sure that we defend it and that’s hard day in and day out.”
This season has certainly been a challenge for the Mountaineers. Before the year even began, West Virginia lost one of its best players in senior midfielder Caroline Szwed
, and then on three consecutive Fridays, WVU lost midfielders Ali Connelly
, Bryce Banuelos
and senior Kara Blosser
Szwed and Blosser were two of only four seniors on this year’s roster, meaning Frances Silva
and Sara Keane
had to come up with big seasons.
And both have.
Silva has become one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country, scoring goals in 10 of her last 15 matches and tallying at least one point in 16 of 18 matches this season.
Her single-season record 13 assists has led to a team-best 37 points, making this year the first time during her outstanding career that she has posted double-digit totals for goals and assists in the same campaign.
Keane, meanwhile, has been a wall for the 13-3-2 Mountaineers in front of the goal. She has posted six shutouts this season with 48 saves and ranks fourth in school history with 23 career shutouts. She has also recorded a pair of shutout wins in conference play this year against Iowa State and Kansas.
“You have a young team with two seniors out on the field and that was something that I was definitely proud of that a lot of people stepped up into roles - and losing two conference players right from the get-go killed us and they were two seniors,” Izzo-Brown said. “Then, you take two more down that are vital and it’s like ‘oh my gosh.’ So I think with us being young, and the fact that we battled through injuries and we found out how to win without these critical players, was something I was really proud of.”
West Virginia also had to deal with the unfamiliarity of traveling to foreign places such as Oklahoma State, Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas Tech this year after playing at Texas, Iowa State, TCU and Kansas last season. That meant getting acquainted with different playing surfaces, different playing environments and different weather conditions on a weekly basis.
“Boy is Oklahoma windy. Texas Tech? Windy. It’s just different, but at South Florida you had to deal with the heat,” explained Izzo-Brown. “It’s just different things that we aren’t used to and just getting educated on and acclimated to … and then making good moves to make sure we adjust quickly.”
The travel going from Oklahoma State on a Friday to play a Sunday match at Baylor, or going from Oklahoma to Texas Tech during another two-day stretch is something else the Mountaineers have to contend with in the Big 12 now.
“It’s quite the travel,” Izzo-Brown admitted. “I think we recognized it but now knowing that we need to go from Oklahoma to Texas and what does that entail? There were still a ton of uncertainties. But now I have a little bit of a better understanding, just like I knew how it was going from Marquette to South Florida. There are going to be positives and negatives. I think with every conference now across the country there is adversity.”
Izzo-Brown knows there will be more adversity on the horizon for her young squad. West Virginia will face a highly motivated Kansas team in the quarterfinal round of the Big 12 soccer tournament on Wednesday at Swope Soccer Village in Kansas City, just like the Mountaineers faced adversity last year when a fired-up TCU team upset them, 2-0, in the quarterfinals.
Unlike last year, though, when West Virginia remained on the road to travel from Austin, Texas to San Antonio where last year’s tournament was played, at least this year the Mountaineers were able to get a week’s worth of rest before the tournament. Izzo-Brown hopes that will give her team time to regain their strength and focus on another postseason run.
“Just as it helped Texas Tech having the week off before playing us, I think it was critical to have that week off to kind of catch our breath and get a little bit of rest and organization underneath our belts before moving forward for the tournament,” she said.
“We just need to regroup, rest and then get after it,” Izzo-Brown concluded.
And continue to win - which Izzo-Brown’s teams have obviously been very good at.