High Expectations

After winning a Big 12 Conference regular season championship in 2012, the No. 19 West Virginia women's soccer team will kick off its season with high expectations against No. 2 Penn State tonight.

Nikki Izzo-Brown took the reigns as the first head coach in the history of the West Virginia women's soccer program with a distinct goal in mind.

She wanted to build her team into one of the nation's elite, a team that immediately came to mind when people thought of NCAA women's soccer.

After 235 victories, 13-straight NCAA tournament appearances and three consecutive conference championships, the veteran head coach has built WVU from scratch and has made it into one of the most consistent programs in the country.

And coming off a Big 12 regular season title in their first season in the program, Izzo-Brown is well aware of the pressure the Mountaineers have to deal with coming into the 2013 season and tonight's season opener against No. 2 Penn State.

"This is the thing: When you beat a championship team, you're always up for that game. If you can beat a team like that, it means something," Izzo-Brown said. "I always tell the girls that we aren't underdogs anymore. Everybody knows that this is a championship team and a championship program, so everybody gets up for West Virginia every time we go out there.

"We're not a secret anymore. Everyone gives us their best because we have earned that respect from them."

Even though the Mountaineers come into 2013 after winning a regular season title, things didn't go the way they had planned in the postseason. The downfall began in the first round of the Big 12 tournament when WVU, the No. 1 seed, fell to No. 8 TCU.

Then, a little more than a week later, West Virginia opened up the NCAA tournament with a home matchup against Princeton but fell short, falling 2-1 to the Tigers.

For the second year in a row, the Mountaineers were a championship-level team heading into the NCAA tournament with plenty of momentum on their side.

And for the second-straight season, they fell in the first round - falling short of the expectations that have stemmed from years of Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearances.

"You can't win them all. I'll have reporters and other people come up to me after we lose games like those and they'll be like, ‘What happened?' " Izzo-Brown said. "But that's fine because it's the expectation and it's a privilege to have those expectations and to be asked questions like that when you don't play maybe as well as you should have.

"People expect us to win, and when we don't it means we've done something wrong. It's a big deal."

Izzo-Brown thinks this year's team could be a special one.

Even with key pieces like Bry McCarthy, Bri Rodriguez and Mallory Smith departing from last year's squad, the Mountaineers will have plenty of talent returning and a couple of the most decorated high school recruits in the program's history.

At the forward positions, the Mountaineers will bring back senior Frances Silva and junior Kate Schwindel, along with sophomore Kelsie Maloney. Silva and Schwindel were one of the best duos in the Big 12 a season ago, accounting for 20 of WVU's 34 goals in 2012.

In total, West Virginia will return eight starters from last year's team and will get back Caroline Szwed - the midfielder who was named the team's Most Valuable Player following the 2011 season but missed last year with a knee injury.

And, after the way last season ended, they're determined to get back to where they feel like they're able to be. That includes possibly becoming the program's first Final Four team.

"Obviously, nobody is satisfied. Do I believe that if this team stays healthy and if we stay on task, then that goal of making a Final Four run can happen? Absolutely, I do," Izzo-Brown said. "There's no reason they can't do that. We have the right people in place, and now it's just keeping everyone healthy and having everyone play within their role and make the necessary sacrifices that they need to make in order to reach that goal."

One thing that could help this team get over that hump is an extremely talented recruiting class that will be heading into Morgantown for this season.

That class of 10 recruits is headlined by Kadeisha Buchanon and Ashley Lawrence, two Canadians who are currently playing for the national team and recently played in a friendly against the United States team with some of the best players in the world like Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan.

Buchanon - who goes by Keisha - is a defender and played all 90 minutes against the U.S. national team and 70 in Canada's most recent friendly against Germany. Lawrence is an offensive-minded midfielder who can play on the backline as well. But what makes Buchanon and Lawrence special players comes from that experience they've had playing for the national team.

"Both of them bring so much experience," Izzo-Brown said. "I think both of them have the maturity that comes with playing as much as they have. They don't play like 17 year olds.

"But there will be times where they do something and you look at them like, 'What are you doing?' But that's just because they are 17 years old, they're still freshmen. But then they'll make plays where you'll be like, 'Wow, they're only freshmen?'"

The rest of the Mountaineer recruiting class includes two ESPNHS top-150 players. Bryce Banuelos, a midfielder from Elmhurst, Ill., comes to Morgantown as the No. 66 player in the country, while Daniela Nieves - a forward from Springfield, Va. - is the No. 138 player in the 2013 recruiting class.

But even with all of this talent returning and coming into the program, West Virginia will have to win games and reach that level that Izzo-Brown is expecting of them while facing one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the nation before going up against a daunting Big 12 Conference. And that begins with starting off the season with three top-10 teams in the first six games of the season, taking on No. 2 Penn State tonight and No. 1 North Carolina and No. 8 Duke at the beginning of September.

"Now that I'm getting to be a little older, I always go ‘Why do I play all these teams? I could have so many more wins if I didn't do that,'" Izzo-Brown said. "But it's invaluable what playing teams like that can do for you. It's going to show your weaknesses early on and I'm able, as a coach, to address those. It's critical for me because my job is to try to find perfection - even though you're not going to find it. I want to do everything we can do to find that though, so that we can finish the season No. 1."

In order to achieve that goal, West Virginia needs to adopt the mindset it's had throughout Izzo-Brown's time at WVU. If you do the little things, everything else will fall into place.

"It's just taking care of the little things, making sure that we understand that 90 minutes is 90 minutes no matter what," she said. "Sometimes you've got to create your own luck. If that's what it takes, then that's what we'll do. It has to be absolute chaos for teams when they play West Virginia."

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