Primed for Success

West Virginia is red-hot. It's ranked in the top 10 in three of the five fall sports, is primed to control the Big East with key victories in each and this weekend cemented its status as the most successful school in the nation in soccer and football with wins this weekend.

For two teams, previously No. 4 ranked football and the No. 6 women's soccer squad, the victories over East Carolina and a tie versus St. John's were simply parts of a building block of their respective seasons. But for the No. 8 men's soccer team, the win over No. 21 Seton Hall – backed by a non-league victory over Penn State – not only gave them an early edge in the Blue Division of the Big East – easily the league's strongest, as the red division offers only national power South Florida and seven solid-but-unspectacular teams, but on the heels of an overtime, 2-1 loss with No. 2 Virginia, proved that WVU has indeed arrived under new head coach Marlon LeBlanc little more than one month after the former PSU player was hired.

The Mountaineers (7-1-2, 4-0-1 Big East) lost former head coach Mike Seabolt after potential NCAA violations – albeit minor ones – were discovered by WVU's athletic department. LeBlanc was named head coach just days before West Virginia began fall drills, and then, per his style, morphed the former defensively-schemed Blue and Gold into an attacking team that pressures not to score and hold, but to score and score…and score to put foes away.

That kind of change – think sixth-year head football coach Rich Rodriguez's adjustment – can take months or years to happen. It can be a struggle, complete with player defections, assistant coaching changes and an uphill fight to gain the belief of athletes. It can be a more challenging overhaul than that done by auto mechanics. And yet LeBlanc has found that rarified combination of master motivator, instructor, coach and public relations exec. It is, simply, among the finest stories in NCAA soccer this season, as his team has yet to lose in conference play and was the last Big East team to take an ‘L' overall.

"If you asked me before the season, I would have said there was no way we would start this fast," LeBlanc said. "There were so many things that potentially could have gone wrong. But the kids have been great. It has taken off for us a lot faster than anybody would imagine. It could have been everything from showing up on first day and not knowing everybody and their strengths and weaknesses to players not buying into the system and what we were trying to do, to our best player quitting, administration, problems with assistants and that not working out. But they bought into what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. I was always up front and honest with everyone no there would be no miss communication."

That included a change in philosophy to an offensive style. It has resulted in 10 points in four Big East games (three wins for three points each and one tie for one point) and the ability to stay in games even after falling behind. In the loss to Virginia, WVU was down 1-0 and playing a man down for 40 minutes, staying tied until the 59th-minute – to the second-best team in the nation, no less – before the Cavaliers scored. The Mountaineers answered with forward Jarrod Smith's six goal of the season, then had multiple chances to win in the final minutes and into overtime.

And if West Virginia outplayed what is considered the nation's second-best team by the coaches' poll and the best team by Soccer America, and, where, exactly, do the Mountaineers fit? A loaded question, sure, but with all the change, what LeBlanc and WVU have accomplished is near miraculous.

"My vision is for us to be a top 10 program," LeBlanc said. "But I thought we would have to work awful hard, and I thought at end of year we might be able to play how we are now. If you asked anybody else they'd say no, WVU has never been in the top 10. But my goal is for us to be a perennial top 10 program. I think we can be. I always want to compete for the Big East championship, but at this stage of this season, I'd tell you I want to win it, not just compete. A realistic goal for the program, let's win the division, get seeded. Then let's win the Big East and the NCAA takes care of itself.

"With the players and former coaches there was a difference in style from before to now. I think in the early goings it was to be anticipated. We would score a goal and see the old system kick in and they would sit back and defend, trying to keep 1-0 lead. Now we have a little more killer instinct to put teams away. They are attacking relentlessly, and I think that style really came to fruition at UVA. We were down a man and a goal and we attacked relentlessly. We easily could have won that game."

With the win over Seton Hall, West Virginia is one of two unbeatens in Big East play in the Blue Division (Connecticut is the other, and those two teams meet Sept. 30 in Stoors). That quick start is of utmost importance because of the variance in team strength between the divisions.

"It could very easily happen that there is a better team with more points that does not make the Big East tournament on our side, replaced by a team which doesn't have near as good of an overall record (but is better in-conference from playing Red Division teams)," LeBlanc said. "We need to go out and take three points at home, then play tie to tie on road and get points out of every game. That formula will take care of the postseason stuff."

West Virginia plays at Connecticut before returning home for a three-game series against rival Pitt, Marquette and American University. A win over UConn would give the Mountaineers a one-game edge in the Blue Division standings and establish WVU as legit power that could reach its second NCAA Tournament for the second straight year for the first time in school history.

"That would really get us into the driver's seat with six games left," LeBlanc said of a win over UConn. "I want to win championships, and if we can win one this year that's a first step."

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