Mountaineer Hopes For The Year Ahead
The 2018-19 athletic year at West Virginia University has come to an end, and it was a bumpy ride.
Outside of men’s basketball, there wasn’t a season that could have been labeled a disaster, but there weren’t many historic ones either.
Mountaineer football had some high moments but also lows as well, and ultimately a new coaching staff. Women’s basketball featured too much medical drama, and men’s basketball featured just too much drama of all varieties. Baseball season just came to a heartbreaking conclusion, but ultimately Randy Mazey’s club was the feel-good story of the year at WVU.
Here is a look ahead at hope for the year to come.
Football – The Mountaineers’ 2019-20 athletic year will start on the gridiron.
Certainly there is a lot of excitement about new head coach Neal Brown and his staff. After watching this group work for the past several months, their attention to detail and coaching skills are impressive. I’d be very surprised if Brown doesn’t ultimately flourish at WVU, but it will likely take time to achieve success. Dana Holgorsen, whose club was 8-4 last year, simply didn’t leave an overabundance of talent. I don’t want to insinuate that the cupboard is completely bare. There are quality players scattered throughout the team, but just seemingly not as many as West Virginia will need be a major contender this season. It’s going to take Brown a year or two to rebuild this roster. Until then Mountaineer fans are going to need to be patient. If WVU’s first-year head coach can guide this year’s squad to a bowl game, he’s done a heck of a job.
Men’s Basketball – Bob Huggins’ biggest goal next year must simply be to rid his team of all the drama that gripped the squad this past season.
Hopefully all the players who didn’t want to or didn’t have the capacity to meet Huggins’ demands are gone, and this new mixture has both the talent and the heart to return the Mountaineers to their winning ways.
At the moment, WVU’s roster still is fluid, so getting a good feel for what’s ahead is difficult. But what’s already in place seems pretty solid. Then again at this point last year, no one envisioned how the 2018-19 campaign would fall apart, ending in 15-21 misery.
It wasn’t necessarily a lack of talent or experience that caused last year’s problems. Some of it was bad luck in terms of injuries, but admittedly most of it came because of poor chemistry and just too many players, especially the veterans, who didn’t give maximum effort.
The 2019-20 squad may actually not be as athletically gifted as last year’s, but if it simply plays hard all the time, it has got more than enough talent to be successful. Now getting back to the Sweet 16 or beyond may be a lot to ask, but simply returning to the NCAA Tournament should not be a goal too high.
Women’s basketball – Like the men’s team, Mike Carey’s squad had some off the court drama as well that ultimately took its toll, but most of his drama was of the medical variety. Thus the 22-11 team missed the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
Carey will try to meld a very good, six-member recruiting class with a nice though not overly deep group of returnees.
Key among the veterans will be fifth-year senior guard Tynice Martin. She’ll certainly end her career as one of the top players in program history (she’s already 12th on the career scoring list with 1,579 points), and if the Mountaineers can’t ride Martin’s talent not only into the NCAA Tournament but at least a couple rounds deep, that will be a true shame.
Rifle – WVU has finished second in the NCAA Championships in each of the past two seasons. At most schools that would be an accomplishment to celebrate. At West Virginia, which has won 19 NCAA rifle team titles, a second-place finish leaves people wondering what went wrong.
Jon Hammond’s team returns four All-Americans next year, but it will have to replace Ginny Thrasher, who is one of the most accomplished shooters in Mountaineer history.
Despite the graduation of Thrasher, WVU’s rifle team will always have an NCAA Championship as its primary target.
Women’s Soccer – From a team that was 15-4-4 last year, won another Big 12 Tournament title and advanced to the second round of the NCAAs, Nikki Izzo-Brown’s squad loses nine seniors, many of whom were key contributors to the program for the past four years.
With such graduation losses, expectations may have to be tempered a bit this coming season, but Izzo-Brown has led the Mountaineers to 19 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. There’s no reason to expect anything less this coming year.
Men’s Soccer – Coach Marlon LeBlanc led WVU to a 14-7 record last year and guided the Mountaineers to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years.
Senior Joey Piatczyc was a huge key to that run, and he’s now moved on to the MLS. Still WVU returns all but four members from last year’s club, so another NCAA berth is a reasonable expectation.
Volleyball – Heading into his fifth season as WVU’s head coach, Reed Sunahara has slowly been building the Mountaineer volleyball program. Last year West Virginia fell back a little bit to an 11-19 record, but that team didn’t have a senior on its 19-woman roster. As they gain experience, improvement in terms of wins and losses should come. In the program’s 45 years, WVU has never been to the NCAA Volleyball Tournament. Getting there this year may be asking too much, but Sunahara seems to be inching closer to that goal.
Gymnastics – In his seven seasons as West Virginia’s women’s gymnastics head coach, Jason Butts has kept the program competitive. This year’s squad finished 19-9 and was one of 36 chosen for the NCAA Championships.
The Big 12 features only four women’s gymnastics teams – Oklahoma, Denver, Iowa State and WVU – and all four were NCAA qualifiers. Oklahoma wound up winning the national championship, and Denver finished fourth.
The departures of seniors Kirah Koshinski and Jaquie Tun will make it hard for Butts to gain ground next season on the national powers that dominate the Big 12. Moving ahead of Iowa State for third in the conference should be the goal.
Wrestling – WVU finished 4-14 this past season on the mat in its first year under head coach Tim Flynn.
Flynn came to West Virginia after 22 very successful seasons at Edinboro (233-95-5), so eventually the odds are he’ll right the Mountaineer ship.
WVU has a long way to go before it can catch Big 12 wrestling power Oklahoma State, which finished third in the NCAA Championships this year.
The Mountaineers were ninth in the 12-team Big 12 Championships this year, and rising into the top six should be the next target.
Golf – Sean Covich has done a wonderful job of building this program from scratch since men’s golf was restarted at WVU four years ago.
This year’s team earned a berth in the NCAA championships regional round, which is a first since the reboot.
Despite the improvement, West Virginia finished 10th in the 10-team Big 12 Championships, which the Mountaineers hosted last month at The Greenbrier. Catching Oklahoma State, the defending national champions, any time soon will be tough, but the Mountaineers should expect to start improving its conference standing, especially considering they have just one senior (Max Sear) on this year’s squad.
Baseball – Earning an NCAA Tournament berth for just the second time in the last 20 years and being award the opportunity to host a Regional for the first time since 1955 made this past West Virginia’s baseball season very memorable, even if it did end in heartbreaking fashion.
Randy Mazey is going to have to rebuild next year’s club, though, as he is losing many key pieces for the 2019 edition.
Gone not only is Alek Manoah, one of the best pitchers in school history, but also the emotional heart and soul of the team in catcher Ivan Gonzalez and the squad’s offensive leader in Darius Hill.
Mazey certainly has this program on an upward climb, and there are some nice youngsters to build next year’s team around, but it’s unrealistic to think you can just reach in and pluck another first-round MLB Draft talent out of that group to lead in 2020.
If next year’s Mountaineers can compete for a NCAA berth, that will be a very nice accomplishment. Fighting for another host opportunity is setting the expectation bar too high.