Bench Magic

West Virginia's finest coaching job this season has gone largely unnoticed. That changes starting Saturday, when the Mountaineer men's soccer team plays in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years.

WVU had slipped from a solid Big East team in 1999 under then-head coach Paul Marco into virtual oblivion when third-year head coach Mike Seabolt was hired in December of 2003. In his second year Seabolt's club won seven more games than a year before, going from 5-10-3 to 12-7-1, including the program's first Big East semifinal tournament appearance in school history.

Now West Virginia (12-7-2) is primed to host an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 1973, playing Robert Morris at 1:30 p.m. WVU ironically lost in '73 to South Florida (3-1), the same team that knocked it out of the Big East postseason tourney this year.

"I'd put (the turnaround) to three things," Seabolt said. "Recruiting better players and better people, getting good personalities and personnel and an overall change in the attitude of the team."

As Seabolt notes, former players seemed more content with self-status as a scholarship players than gearing goals toward team objectives.

"This is a team that's not just happy to be on the soccer team, but is trying to win games," he said. "I worry about us more than I worry about (RMU)."

Only 16 of the 48 NCAA Tournament teams are seeded. West Virginia will face ninth-seeded and fifth-ranked Akron (17-1-2) Nov. 22 if it wins. WVU made the tournament in 1992 because it won the Atlantic 10 postseason tournament. It made it this year on merit, gaining an at-large bid.

The Mountaineers, 61-106-14 all-time versus the current NCAA Tourney field, beat fellow NCAA tournament team Providence and upped the out-of-conference slate to play a match against New Mexico, another NCAA team.

Nine of 21 matches West Virginia played this year were against teams currently in the NCAA tournament and 15 of WVU's foes had a .500 record or better. All three of West Virginia's losses down the stretch were against Top 25 opponents.

"I was a little nervous because I felt like we deserved to get in this year," Seabolt, now 29-24-6 in three seasons at WVU, told MSN. "I was like, well, what if we don't? Last year I thought we had to be lucky to get in."

That has much to do with keeper Nick Noble, one of a school-record four players to make the All-Big East team. As a freshman he posted the fifth-lowest goals against average in school history (1.17). As a sophomore he set it (0.77) and this season he snapped Mark Bachteler's team record of nine shutouts in one season (1989) with 11. Noble easily has the lowest GAA in school history (0.91 to the second-best 1.22) and is just three shutouts shy of that school record as well.

That's proven significant in a season where late wins over Providence and Rutgers, both 1-0, likely secured the bid. Now the challenge winning a game and advancing for just the second time ever. The first was in 1981, when the Mountaineers beat Virginia 2-1.

Robert Morris (11-7-1) earned a bid by winning the Northeastern Conference championship with a 3-2 win over Monmouth. WVU beat the Colonials 3-0 in the regular season, getting goals from forwards Jarrod Smith and Zak Boggs - a Parkersburg, W.Va. native - and midfielder Sean Brooks.

Smith leads West Virginia with 18 points on eight goals and two assists. Dan Stratford and Andy Wright each have 12 and Boggs, the only state native on a roster with seven foreign players, has 11. Right back Pat Carroll has five assists.

"We are not going to change for them," Seabolt said of RMU, which uses a 4-4-2 set. "But we need to take note that they have a really good forward. We have to be aware of that."

West Virginia was without Carroll (eye injury) and Noble was suffering from dysentery. West Virginia was one of a record seven Big East schools to qualify for this year's tournament. Connecticut, South Florida, St. John's, Providence, Notre Dame and Seton Hall also made the field. WVU has made NCAA trips in 1966, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1992.

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