MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – With today’s announcement that West Virginia's men’s soccer team has found a new home in the Mid-American Conference, what exactly does that mean for a Mountaineer program that has made five NCAA tournament appearances since 2005?
It means things will remain business as usual, says veteran WVU coach Marlon LeBlanc.
“One of the reasons I wanted to go with the MAC is that there is a conference priority on (men’s soccer) much like there was in the Big East,” he said. “The fact that there is a conference priority means they want their men’s soccer teams competing at a national level. We’ve very, very positive about it and we think that the league is going to get stronger, and we know we’ve helped make the league a stronger one today as well.”
Akron has long been the MAC’s cornerstone men’s soccer program, but Northern Illinois made the jump into the top 25 last year and LeBlanc says there are other solid programs in the conference as well. The biggest difference between the MAC and the Big East is the number of schools playing in the two leagues – the Big East had 16 schools playing in two divisions last season while the MAC now has eight schools with the addition of West Virginia.
“It’s hard to compare because you are talking about one conference that was 16 teams and another one that’s now going to be eight teams,” LeBlanc said. “I think at the top you’ve got some very, very good programs in the MAC and at the top of the Big East you have some very, very good programs. You just have more of them in the Big East because of the sheer numbers we had.”
Despite the switch from a league with a nine-game conference schedule last season to one that will employ a seven-game league slate this fall, LeBlanc said his scheduling philosophy will not change much.
“When I first came to WVU we played 11 conference games. In 2012 was actually going to be the first year (the Big East was) going to go down to eight conference games - the reason being the impact on the RPI because your non-conference carries a stronger weight against the RPI than your in-conference schedule,” he explained. “The Big East is obviously a very, very good league. Was it 16 teams deep? Not everybody was at the same level of competitiveness so the decision was made from that standpoint to reduce, so going from what would have been an eight-game league schedule to a seven-game schedule is really indifferent.”
LeBlanc maintains that his program has never relied on conference affiliation to earn an NCAA tournament bid anyway. He says his regular-season schedule is designed to take care of that.
“It’s about what we do through our entire body of work and our non-conference schedule has always been a top-15, top-20 non conference schedule since I’ve been at WVU and this year is no different than any other,” he said. “We were already loaded up from a non-conference perspective; we’ve had to add a few more games, and we’ve had to do a little schedule manipulating and juggling to make this thing work, but we are close to having our 2012 schedule in place in the next few weeks.”
And that includes trying to maintain some of the traditional rivalries West Virginia has built up through the years against some of the most successful Big East programs.
“We tried to do a little creative scheduling this year in order to keep some of those rivalries going,” he admitted. “We’d like to continue to play UConn. We’d like to continue to play Notre Dame because they’re good programs. South Florida is one we are hoping to keep as well. Right now, we’re just trying to get 2012 pieced together before we can get to those guys.”
LeBlanc said West Virginia did briefly consider competing as an independent before coming to the conclusion that the Mid-American Conference was the best alternative for the men’s soccer program at the present time with some leagues still trying to figure out their future configurations.
“We couldn’t risk not knowing what would happen so we needed to move forward,” he said. “The independence route was just another option. I think from our perspective, being in a league where we knew we were going to have a schedule put together, I felt more comfortable having that in place than not knowing because the conferences were still looking at making some moves.”
“The conference affiliation really offers you the games and the automatic bid. Right now we have 22 conferences with automatic bids and 26 at-large spots,” said LeBlanc. “(Having an automatic bid is) a nice nugget to have at the end of the year if you’re desperate, but if you’ve done your job then you’re not sitting there on (selection) Monday wondering whether or not you’re going to be in the tournament.”
Ultimately, LeBlanc believes his program will add to what he believes is already and up and coming men’s soccer conference in the MAC.
“I’m a strong believer that the schools make the conference; the conference doesn’t make the schools,” he said. “I believe us going to the MAC will raise the bar in that conference - not just by West Virginia being a good team in that league - but West Virginia being committed to the sport, being successful and being able to schedule teams like North Carolina and Penn State and Wake Forest and some of the other big hitters. If we can do well in those games and a MAC team is able to beat West Virginia, then that helps the entire league because the entire league’s RPI jumps up significantly.
“We’ve very, very positive about it and we think that the league is going to get stronger and we know we’ve helped make the league a stronger one today as well,” he concluded.
West Virginia has made a four-year commitment to the MAC.