The Big 12 Conference last year had all of its teams ranked among the nation’s top 100, finishing second among all conferences in the RPI, and that suits West Virginia University women’s soccer coach Nikki Izzo-Brown just fine.
After all, the Mountaineers made their 12th consecutive NCAA appearance last season under Izzo-Brown and won the always-tough Big East for the third time in the last five years. Now, West Virginia plans on taking its outstanding soccer tradition to the Big 12 Conference to help an already established league become even better.
“Everybody has been so gracious and open-armed to help and make sure that we understand how things have rolled, but also there is excitement because we do help the Big 12,” said Izzo-Brown, now in her 17th season as WVU’s only women’s soccer coach.
Women’s soccer is one of the programs West Virginia sponsors right now that is capable of going into the Big 12 and competing right away for championships. The Mountaineers’ 12 NCAA tournament trips under Izzo-Brown are actually three more than Texas’ nine, which is the most by any Big 12 program to this point.
And Oklahoma State has been the class of the conference the last three or four years, finishing last season ranked sixth in the country and advancing to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
Izzo-Brown says the top teams in the Big 12 and the Big East are very comparable.
“We’re leaving a conference that has had the national champion in it [Notre Dame] so for us that was something we always looked forward to,” she said. “But you’ve got to look at the RPI and I think if you look at this year’s RPI in the Big 12, it was higher than the Big East’s, so we’re looking forward to seeing that strength as we go into this inaugural season.”
Izzo-Brown said she will approach this year the same way she approaches post-season play because this will be the first time her team will be facing schools in the Big 12, and vice versa.
“It’s just like NCAA time for us,” she explained. “We are experiencing new teams at critical times and you just have to perform. There has been very strong tradition at Texas, and Baylor had a great year this past year; Kansas has a strong tradition, so there is a lot to be said in that regard.”
Izzo-Brown expects tough, physical and athletic play in the Big 12 to continue this year despite several programs introducing new head coaches.
“The uniqueness of the Big 12 is going to be this … Texas just got a new head coach, TCU has got a new head coach; Oklahoma has just got a new head coach so to be honest, there are three, plus us, that are new,” she said. “I think each coach brings something different, but it’s a physical league and very fast-paced, and for us, we try to play every conference. We obviously play Big Ten and we play ACC; so we try to mix it up throughout the season. The Big Ten, the ACC and the Big East will show us a little bit of all of what we will see this fall.”
Because West Virginia will hop on an airplane for all of its conference road games this year, Izzo-Brown said her future non-conference scheduling will be adjusted to reflect that.
“We’re going to try and stay a little bit more regionally because of the travel situation,” she noted. “There is no reason for us to put another flight on our schedule, but also for people here to travel by car, and for recruiting purposes because that makes sense.”
Fortunately for West Virginia, the Mountaineers are at a point in their program now where they can attract top-quality schools to play in Morgantown. That will be extra helpful as West Virginia encounters new challenges playing a full round-robin Big 12 schedule this fall and into the future.
Perhaps the biggest challenge will be the difference in climate when it is much cooler in Morgantown than some of the places that the Mountaineers will travel to and play later this fall.
“The good thing is we don’t play anybody in the conference until the end of September, but I think that is an issue that we’re going to have to deal with,” Izzo-Brown said. “But I also think that we’ve dealt with that going to Marquette on a Friday night and then playing South Florida on a Sunday afternoon. In the Big East, it did present us that, but not as much as we’ll see heading into the Big 12. It is something we have to be aware of and make sure our athletes are prepared for and then the nutrition will kick in and the physical stuff we’ll have to address.”
As was the case in the Big East, WVU’s coaches will have to deal with some two-day weekend preps in the Big 12. That means the coaching staff will have only one day of preparation for an opponent that, in all likelihood, will be completely different than the team the Mountaineers had previously faced.
“It’s a little different because they don’t have as many teams, so we have two weekends that are alone and we only play one Big 12 game and then the rest are Friday-Sundays,” said Izzo-Brown. “We do have one Thursday-Sunday because we have a TV game this year [against Oklahoma].”
Izzo-Brown is well known for getting her teams prepared to play, and through the years her coaches developed extensive scouting reports on all of their Big East opponents. Now with the switch to a new conference, all of that information they accumulated is essentially out the window.
Of course, this goes both ways – Big 12 teams will have to learn about West Virginia, too.
“It’s going to be really interesting,” she said. “There is not that familiarity factor. When we played certain teams in the Big East, we knew what Marquette was going to present and what problems we had to solve, for example. Now going against some of these other teams we might not be as comfortable, but that’s OK – that is something we need to address.
“We worked pretty hard to understand some Big East schools and a lot of our [file] space is going to be cleared,” Izzo-Brown added. “It’s time to open a new chapter and close that one, which is sad, but it’s also exciting at the same time.”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.