Reloading WVU Women’s Soccer Aiming High Despite Graduation Losses
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia soccer has won national respect.
Now coach Nikki Izzo-Brown wants it to win a national championship.
“We were the best kept secret,” the only coach WVU women’s soccer has ever known said on Tuesday as her team reported to camp to begin the 2018 season. “That dynamic has changed now.
“Finally getting to College Cup, that was the top of it all. When we got there, I thought, we’ve gotten 16 conference championships, we went to 18 NCAA Tournaments … we’ve been there, we just haven’t been to that next level.”
That was two years ago when the Mountaineers were No. 1 in the nation but lost in the NCAA final.
Some would say that’s as high as you can go.
Not Nikki Izzo-Brown.
“We have to win the national championship,” she said.
That’s the Holy Grail. Win that and it’s “Mission Accomplished”.
Izzo-Brown isn’t saying it has to be this season, but this would be a good one with nine returning seniors, joining nine freshmen on the roster.
Nine seniors, she knows, is a gold mine of experience.
“They just replace each other, just in numbers, not in personality,” she explained. “You can never seem to get it right but they are the right people and I’m so happy it was nine. We lost a lot of people from last year, good players, but the nine returning seniors understand the things that happened and will make sure we don’t drop off a lot from last year.”
One of the reasons the pipeline now is flowing is because Izzo-Brown has left no doubt that her goal is to help her players realize there greatest dreams.
“One of things is that players are now committing to West Virginia to become professional players, so it’s very important for them to be pushed every day in training, every opportunity to touch the ball with high level international players and US national team players is vital,” she said.
“We’re excited we’re giving the playground and tools to accomplish their goals to become professional players and national team members.”
It will not be the same team, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do incredible things like last year’s team did, including beating No. 1 Penn State.
Izzo-Brown is eager to see how things work themselves out.
“Obviously they take on each other’s personalities. I’m really interested to see how it comes together and what this ends up looking like,” she said. “We are just so solid as a group, so many enthusiastic personalities. It will be interesting to see what’s behind us and what’s driving us.”
The seniors she knows about. She knows her second leading scorer to Michaela Abam, Sh’Nia Gordon is back and brings with her a great amount of skill and determination.
“Every year I giggle and think, ‘OK, who’s going to replace Ashley Lawrence, who’s going to replace Keisha’? And I know nobody can replace those players and no one really can replace those kind of players. But Nia wants to step up and be that person,” Izzo-Brown said.
And then there’s Vanessa Flores, another senior.
“Vanessa is one of the smartest defenders I’ve ever coached and that says a lot because I’ve had Defender of the Year every year in the Big 12, if not the Big East,” Izzo-Brown said. “The way Vanessa can read the game and understand the game and almost be mindful before something happens is incredible.
“She is just a soccer mind.”
Of course, when we talk about what has been accomplished we’re discussing history but what’s important now is the future, and Izzo-Brown is ready to step into it, beginning with a strong recruiting class that has jumped in quality along with the recent success and a No. 1 ranking.
She’s not making any predictions of greatness, though, for the team or for her players. Never does before play begins.
“I’m right behind Lou Holtz. I’m always saying ‘Oh, we’re going to be terrible. We are just going to lay down,’” she joked. “It’s like talking about freshmen Until they play, I just don’t like talking about them because it’s a tough adjustment. You have to acclimate yourself to college ball.
“I have a high expectation and standard of excellence. I’m not so focused on the result, but I’m focused on the process. If we’re taking care of the process, there’s no ceiling to this team. I’ll never cap it, especially with nine seniors. What incredible leadership I can stand behind.”
The process begins, as it does with so many great coaches, with defense first.
“We talk about pillars of success. Defending is an attitude, defending is a mentality. We know we want players that will have grit, who will grind and play defense but also master the craft. You can look at a Sh’Nia Gordon, who has incredible speed and can break teams down with that and her ability to read the game … we want that but we also want her to defend,” Izzo-Brown said.
And they will be tested early, just as they always are.
“We open up with Penn State. You can’t get it wrong against them. If you make a mistake, they are going to burn you. We understand every minute together counts,” she said.