Top 10 WVU Sports Stories of the Year: Numbers Five Through One
By Brian McCracken
Earlier we chronicled numbers 10 through six in our countdown of the top 10 WVU sports stories of the year. We dove into WVU’s impressive fiscal year and the renovations that began at the Coliseum and Milan Puskar stadium among other items. Today we examine the big ones – the program firsts, the national championship caliber teams and the stories that will be remembered and told for many years to come. Without further ado, here are the top five WVU sports stories of the year.
5. Men’s Basketball Reaches Sweet 16
2016 left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. After putting together an excellent regular season and reaching the Big 12 championship, the Mountaineers, led by Jaysean Paige and Devin Williams, were ousted by No.14 seed Stephen F. Austin in the NCAA tournament’s round of 64.
2017 served as a redemption tour for the hungry Mountaineers. Despite losing the aforementioned Williams and Paige, West Virginia put together a 24 win regular season and reached the Big 12 tournament title before earning a No.4 seed in the west region. WVU went on to take care of No.13 seeded Bucknell in the first round and bullied former Big East foe Notre Dame in the round of 32 to set up a Sweet 16 match-up with No.1 seeded Gonzaga. The Mountaineers and Bulldogs traded blows in a tightly contested, street fight of a game and WVU led with under two minutes remaining, but the Zags took advantage of some untimely mistakes and pulled out a 61-58 victory to put an end to West Virginia’s season.
Gonzaga went on to reach the national championship and West Virginia packed its bags but it was still a stellar season for the Mountaineers, who finished with 28 wins and ranked No.11 in the final coaches poll. While the close loss led to heartache for fans and graduating seniors alike, the 2016-2017 ball club will be remembered as the best since the 2009-2010 team that reached the Final Four.
4. Baseball Breaks 21 Year Postseason Drought
Much like the men’s basketball team, West Virginia’s baseball team entered the 2017 season with something to prove. Just a few weeks after the Mountaineers were spurned from NCAA tournament play I talked to head coach Randy Mazey, who told me his ball club would attack the 2017 season with a whole new aura of seriousness. Looking back on things, that’s exactly what it did.
After getting off to a slow start (the Mountaineers held an 8-7 record after the first 15 games of the season) West Virginia won its next five series in a row, including its first four series of conference play. Within that stretch was a series victory over No.3 TCU in front of the largest home crowds that Monongalia County Ballpark has ever seen – a sign of the excitement that Randy Mazey’s ball club was starting to generate in the mountain state.
Unfortunately, a rash of injuries (most notably those to starting pitchers Michael Grove and Conner Dotson) slowed some of their momentum, but nonetheless the Mountaineers fought through adversity for the remainder of the year and closed out the regular season with a top 25 spot in the RPI.
West Virginia fell just short of reaching the Big 12 tournament championship for the second year in a row, but after beating up on Baylor and coming from behind against Texas Tech, it had firmly cemented itself in the field of 64. On selection day the Mountaineers watched, waited and rejoiced as they became the first WVU team since 1996 to make a regional and the first in school history to receive an at-large bid.
The Mountaineers earned a No.2 seed in the Winston Salem regional, where they dispatched of Maryland twice before falling to No.1 seeded Wake Forest. It’s impossible to know for sure, but had the Mountaineers not lost Grove and Dotson, they could still be alive in the tournament today.
Regardless, it was a banner year for the West Virginia’s baseball program. Looking ahead, it returns several key contributors to next year’s squad and should be loaded for years to come.
3. Women’s Basketball Wins Big 12 Tournament
West Virginia’s women’s basketball team finished its regular season with 20 victories, but because of an underwhelming 8-10 conference record and a weak out of conference schedule, most figured it needed to win at least two games in the Big 12 tournament in order to make it to the field of 64.
The No.6 seeded Mountaineers did one better, they won the entire thing. Despite being heavy underdogs in all three matches, West Virginia rode the hot hand of Tynice Martin and earned victories over No.19 Oklahoma, No.12 Texas and No.2 Baylor to come home with its first conference tournament championship since winning the Atlantic 10 Tourney in 1989. Martin, who scored 21, 29 and 32 points respectively, earned tournament MVP honors and made a name for herself nationally as one of the country’s most prolific scorers.
While most still peg the 2013-2014 team as Mike Carey’s best group, there truly was something magical about the 2016-2017 team and the run it put together to win the Big 12 tournament. The Mountaineers fell to Maryland in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but it should be able to build on the momentum it gained in Oklahoma City going forward.
2. Rifle Earns Fifth Consecutive National Championship
You may find yourself asking ‘How in the world does a national championship end up at No.2 on this list?’ so let me explain. West Virginia’s Rifle program is so consistently outstanding that winning titles has become the year in, year out standard in Morgantown. In fact, it would probably be a bigger story if the Mountaineers didn’t win a national championship (see UConn’s women’s hoops team).
That being said, we shouldn’t lose track of just how impressive West Virginia’s stranglehold on the sport has been. The latest national championship marks the fifth consecutive and 19th overall for the Mountaineers – which is absurd to think about considering collegiate competition started in 1980. The 2017 edition was a little different however, as WVU entered the tournament ranked No.2 behind TCU and came in with four shooters who had never competed in NCAA tournament play.
However, inexperience didn’t seem to affect West Virginia once competition started. After winning the smallbore national title by two shots on day one, it shot a season high score of 2387 in air rifle competition to pull away from the Horned Frogs and win the air rifle and overall team national championship on day two. The feat is even more impressive when you consider that a pair of freshmen, Milica Babic and Morgan Phillips, who won the individual smallbore and air rifle titles respectively, led the Mountaineers to victory.
The Mountaineers return a Gold Medalist (and former national champion) in Ginny Thrasher and two defending national champions in Babic and Phillips, so don’t be surprised if we’re writing about national title No.20 at this time next year.
1. Women’s Soccer Reaches National Championship
In a historic year with successes across the board there is one story that seems to stand above the rest in West Virginia athletics: the success of West Virginia’s women’s soccer team.
Led by seniors Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan, Nikki Izzo Brown’s squad won the Big 12 title for the fifth consecutive season, achieved a number of program firsts (including becoming the first team in school history to be ranked No.1 in every major poll) and made it all the way to the national championship game.
After coming from behind to beat TCU in overtime in the Big 12 championship, the No.1 ranked Mountaineers entered the NCAA tournament with a record of 19-1-1, good for a No.1 seed (another program first). The Mountaineers quickly dispatched of Northern Kentucky before winning four tightly contested matches over Ohio State, UCLA, Duke and North Carolina to make it to the national championship game.
Unfortunately the historic run ended there with a 3-1 loss to USC, but there is absolutely no denying the talent, heart and determination that the Mountaineers consistently displayed. The 2016 team stands as the best of Nikki Izzo Brown’s tenure (which speaks volumes in itself) and should be remembered as one of the great teams in West Virginia’s athletic history, regardless of the sport.