"We Have Arrived"

This No. 4 West Virginia men's soccer team isn't simply a good story anymore. It moved far beyond that simplistic labeling with the 2-1 win over No. 6 Notre Dame here Wednesday.

It has proven, thus far, to be the best in the Big East. Coaches nationwide think it to be in the NCAA top five. It reads here that it's the best on campus, and most likely the finest purely team-sport compilation in Morgantown since Don Nehlen's 1993 American football Mountaineers.

It has all the tangibles (coaching, talent, athleticism, skill, goal tending, soccer IQ) and those aspects harder to define and measure (desire, will, chemistry and a rare blend of confidence that has kept West Virginia quiet internally, but brimming with poise and assurance on the pitch).

So here's the kicker, what nobody has said but some are now pondering: West Virginia's men's soccer team is a national title contender.

It has scoring in all-everything forward Jarrod Smith and midfielder Dan Stratford, whose equalizer against Notre Dame was a rocket-like strike on the ball that, from 22 yards out, never rose or fell more than three feet. It has a duo of setup men with midfielder Mike Anoia and forward Jyler Noviello. It has young talents in Gift Maworere and Ryan Gillespie. And like any great team, it's solid up the middle, the main brick in the wall being keeper Nick Noble, the school's all-time shutout leader who has an 0.64 goals against average this season.

When it fell behind, in the first five minutes no less, to a top 10 team, it didn't panic. This new offensive style under first year head coach Marlon LeBlanc allowed for more scoring chances, and the Mountaineers (13-1-2, 8-0-1 Big East) tied the game before the break – keeping them from chasing the action in the final 45 minutes – then finished the Fightin' Irish with midfielder Andy Wright's right-to-left boot that beat Notre Dame goalkeeper Chris Cahill. The shot, called among the finest one will see at any level by LeBlanc, tucked inside the post to the back left portion of the netting.

There were still 34-plus minutes left. But that was irrelevant in front of a school-record crowd of 2,153, nearly 1,000 more than the previous mark of 1,208, that was oft-aroused by the Mountaineer, who led chants, and by a trio of kids on a drum set that echoed beyond the match, clear into the parking lots of the WVU Coliseum, packed into the upper level and beyond with fans having to walk from spaces adjacent to Gale Catlett Drive.

"It was a great win," LeBlance said. "It said a lot about these kids to come back against one of the top teams in the country. It proves we are catching on in this community, that we have arrived. If we can put 2,000-plus in this stadium every time we play, this place will become a fortress for us."

It had better. It's housing a team that has quietly arisen to the nation's elite, and one primed to go farther into the postseason than any before it. The grandest of nights for West Virginia soccer need not be its highlight. It was, indeed, a showcase win for a program that is quickly emerging into not only a fan favorite, a lovely local story, or a contender for the Big East, but one that is a challenger for something much bigger than any fan could have imagined at the start of the year.

"That," LeBlanc said, "was a College Cup-type atmosphere, a final four-type game. But would anybody have drawn it up with West Virginia being in it?"

They just did.


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