The Binding Battle

  • By Shannon McNamara
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  • October 11, 2013 01:31 PM
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Competitive streaks are a trademark of all 18 West Virginia University women’s soccer teams coached by Nikki Izzo-Brown. The desire to do better – on the field, in the classroom, in every walk of life – helps the Mountaineer mentor push her student-athletes to greatness. Settling is never an option.

That competitive nature has helped the WVU women’s soccer team achieve an admirable feat that will never garner recognition in the team’s trophy case, but is sure to leave a lasting impact in the Morgantown community.

A check will be presented to the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center at halftime of tonight’s match between the No. 9-ranked Mountaineers and Iowa State at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium. A tradition at every WVU women’s soccer Pink Game, a yearly match that brings attention to the fight against breast cancer, this year’s check is significant, as the $15,781 raised by the Mountaineers this past spring pushes the program’s 10-year total to more than $100,000.

“I think it’s important to wear pink, and I think it’s important to be aware of the cause, but I think it’s most important to fund research and help find a cure,” explained Izzo-Brown. “For us to hit that dollar mark was huge. It would have never happened if the girls didn’t feel the importance of the cause and raising money. Most of these girls immediately feel the importance of the cause and of raising money, and they embrace it. Some of them really feel the impact of the pride once they get involved with the fund-raising efforts. There is an ownership that hits all of them at a point – there’s something bigger than soccer that we’re trying to accomplish here at West Virginia, and that’s important to me. The game of soccer is so important, but the game of life and impacting another’s life in a positive way is much more important.”

Junior midfielder Ali Connelly, the 2012-13 WVU Female Student-Athlete Community Service Outreach Award honoree, echoes her coach’s thoughts.

“I think it’s a great accomplishment, and I’m honored to be a part of the efforts,” she said. “To be able to say that we raised that much money for breast cancer research and that we were able to help so many people is really special.”

October always brings a rash of pink to college campuses, as most female teams, and a few men’s teams, too, show their support for breast cancer awareness with pink events and pink uniforms. Izzo-Brown’s teams have been dedicated to the cause for 10 years. Assistant coach Marisa Kanela, a four-year letterwinner (2002-05) at WVU, remembers the pride she and her teammates felt each season when they were able to present a check to the cancer center.

“As a player, I immediately jumped on board to support this cause because I knew it was something close to Nikki’s heart and something that she wanted to bring to the table with this program and to the Morgantown community,” Kanela, the team’s current community service liaison, said. “As a player, I was never asked to do something like raise funds for a bigger cause. I thought it was cool. My teammates and I wanted to see what we could do – it almost became a challenge in itself to see how much money for research we could raise.”

Kanela said she and her teammates would have a minimum of $100 in donations that they were asked to raise, but that they were never satisfied with stopping at that goal. Funds were raised via community service projects with local clubs and interactions with Morgantown parents.

“You would be surprised how many people would reach in their pockets and donate whatever they had,” Kanela said of the many supporters she’s come in contact with over the years.

Most recently, the women’s soccer team has found success with its annual 4v4 Tournament – “Three’s a Team…the Fourth’s a Mountaineer.” An all-day event, the tournament is open to boys and girls in grades three through eight, with an open division for college-age and older groups. All funds raised go to the Betty Puskar Breast Care Center.

“Our girls look forward to that event every year,” she said. “Everyone always looks forward to seeing which teams are coming back – there’s a connection that’s made. Some of these teams even make our girls decorated t-shirts, and they love that. We’ve had many family members come back, too, because we have adult leagues. A lot of the shirts will have names of people that have passed or are dealing with breast cancer right now. Every year, we see that more and more people are affected by this disease, and every year, more and more of us want to do something to help.”

While wearing pink for tonight’s match brings an extra flair to the playing field, Kanela says there’s a deeper meaning behind the special uniform change.

“Everyone loves the color pink, so this game gives our girls another excuse to wear pink. I think it goes beyond the excuse to wear pink – I think it’s about the pride in wearing pink,” she said. “I think the girls really like representing.”

The Mountaineers go as far as selecting which match-up will be their designated Pink Game, and Kanela says that this weekend was circled on the team’s calendar long ago.

“They like to pick which game is our Pink Game because it means something to them - they want it to be against one of their best opponents,” she explained. “This is the weekend the team wanted. We lost to TCU unexpectedly in the quarterfinals at last year’s Big 12 Championship, and Iowa State is always a tough battle. Our team recognized that everyone has to battle against their own personal cancer, and they wanted to battle against Iowa State. We know it’s going to be a battle against them. They’re a physical team that never gives up. We’re ready for a battle.

“We use our Pink Game as our opportunity to say that we fight for people that are battling for something. When we take the field, we’re battling for more than what we provide, which is WVU soccer. We’re battling for all those affected by cancer.”

In addition to the check presentation and sporting new pink uniforms, the Mountaineers will hang a banner outside Dick Dlesk Stadium. Fans are invited to write the names of loved ones who have been affected by the disease. Those that write on the banner and/or donate a sundry item for the Betty Puskar Breast Care Center will receive one free ticket for tonight’s game.

“A lot of our fans may not know our players personally, but when they see our student-athletes’ names on the banner next to their own name or a name of one of their loved ones, they’ll realize that we all have something in common,” said Kanela. “Everyone has a story, and everyone has something she is working toward. Our team goes out every game and works toward being the best we can for ourselves and for the University. But tonight, we’ll know we’re fighting for something else, too. Tonight, when we hold up our pink jerseys at the end of the game, we’ll be representing a lot more than ourselves.”

“We put ourselves out there and want to raise awareness for breast cancer at our Pink Games,” said junior forward Kate Schwindel. “We always want to do all that we can to support this cause. We know we’re role models, and we hope if others see us supporting the cause, they’ll want to support and make a difference, too.”

Just like any Izzo-Brown led team, the Mountaineers won’t settle after passing the $100,000 mark. Connelly sees WVU chasing a bigger target in the coming years.

“We can hit $200,000,” she emphatically stated. “In everything we do, we try to make it a team competition, and I know we’re all going to want to raise more money in the coming year.”

With the Mountaineers’ success rate, and the passion they reserve for this cause, there’s little doubt that the $200,000 threshold will soon be crossed, too.

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