Men's Soccer to Face Difficult Slate in '13
There can be no questioning Marlon LeBlanc’s desire to play the best soccer teams in the country.
Last year, during a seven-day stretch in late September, LeBlanc’s Mountaineer soccer team faced North Carolina, Wake Forest and Penn State – all on the road – these matches coming less than a month after the team began preseason training.
Well, this year West Virginia’s Murder’s Row begins on Sept. 6 when the Mountaineers travel to Georgetown and it ends on Sept. 29 when Akron comes to Morgantown for a Mid-American Conference showdown at Dick Dlesk Stadium.
In between, there are matches at Indiana, against Wright State, at St. John’s, and back at home for a pair of games against Big Ten blue bloods Michigan and Penn State.
West Virginia could have one heck of a soccer team by early October and its record may not fully reflect it.
“It’s a great schedule and if we’re not ready to go pretty early ...,” said LeBlanc, his thoughts trailing off as he contemplates what his young team will be facing coming out of the gate this season. “We go straight from nothing to preseason, which is a matter of about 10 days. There is a lot of trust and a lot of faith that our guys are doing the work, and with our schedule this year, a lot of our early season success will be contingent upon how well they prepare in the summer.”
LeBlanc’s reasoning for assembling such a difficult early season slate is obvious: he wants his team to be prepared for what it will face in the national tournament. And make no mistake about it, making a deep run in the NCAA tournament is always the No. 1 goal for LeBlanc’s Mountaineer soccer program.
Last year, at 9-6-2 in its first season in the MAC, West Virginia fell just short of achieving that objective.
“(In 2011), 9-6-2 – if we’re in the Big East that gets us into the NCAA tournament,” LeBlanc explained. “(Last season) it didn’t work out and our strength of schedule wasn’t as great as what we had in the past.”
Men’s soccer was in a very difficult situation last year during its move from the Big East to the Mid-American Conference. While the athletic department was transitioning from the Big East to the Big 12 – a league that does not presently sponsor men’s soccer – West Virginia’s men’s soccer program had to remain in idle until all of the Big East-to-the-Big 12 details were ironed out.
That meant LeBlanc couldn’t commit to certain non-conference dates until everything was resolved and the school officially announced its intention to join the MAC late last spring, and that ultimately put him behind the eight ball in regards to scheduling.
“We couldn’t outwardly go out and pursue conference affiliation (until West Virginia’s departure from the Big East was resolved), and without having a conference schedule we couldn’t go out and pursue non-conference games because who wanted to schedule us if we couldn’t commit to anything?” said LeBlanc.
“Our problem would have been their problem if we ended up dropping games," he added. "By the time we finally got our conference situation sorted out we had to find a way to piece our non-conference schedule together and it didn’t work out the way we needed it to.”
Thus, the decision to play three extremely difficult games on the road during a seven-day stretch against national-class programs. If West Virginia wins just one of those matches, it probably earns a fifth NCAA tournament trip under LeBlanc.
“We ended up kind of shooting ourselves in the foot in some cases where we go and play Carolina, Wake Forest and Penn State in a seven-day period and that really didn’t give us our best chance for success,” LeBlanc noted.
Then later, West Virginia’s problems were compounded when Hurricane Sandy wiped out the Stony Brook match. Ten or 11 wins looks a whole lot more appealing to the selection committee than nine does.
“Now we’re down to 16 regular season games so it was just a mess from the beginning,” said LeBlanc, now 72-45-21 entering his eighth season at WVU.
This year, West Virginia once again faces a very difficult early season schedule, but at least now the matches are spaced out a little bit more favorably, plus, some of them are at home where LeBlanc’s teams comfortably win more than 70 percent of their games.
“Do we have to go that hard?” asked LeBlanc. “Probably not because you still have to win them – or win enough of them at least, and could we have been a little bit more flexibile there? Absolutely. But the ultimate goal is to prepare for a postseason run and it does us no good to go out and win a bunch of games and get knocked out in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“That September really replicates what a November-December run would look like if we are going to make a run at it,” LeBlanc continued. “If anything, our guys will have a pretty good picture and will be prepared.”
Indeed they will.
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