Noble Effort

When new men's soccer head coach Marlon LeBlanc arrived and installed an attacking system for the Mountaineers, goalkeeper Nick Noble initially thought it might be bad news for him.

With more players pressing forward, Noble thought he might end up being exposed to counterattacks from opponents and face untenable situations in goal. However, much to his delight, he quickly found out that wasn't the case. "Going in to this year, I thought the attacking style might make it more difficult defensively for us, but it hasn't turned out that way at all," said Noble, who has posted eight shutouts this year. "We have been moving more players forward, but we have still been able to cover defensively.

"Last year we played two forwards up, but this year we are playing just one. The difference is that we put our outside defenders and our midfielders into the offense much more," the senior keeper explained. "They need a lot of speed and fitness to do that and also be able to get back defensively. I think our depth helps there also. We have a lot of players at those positions, and we can substitute in there a lot more when we have to."

LeBlanc's style might initially have been viewed as a case of the best defense being a good offense, but it's not as if the aggressive style has left WVU's defense lacking. The Mountaineers have given up goals in just eight games, and only Seton Hall, which fell 5-3, has managed more than two goals against the Mountaineers. Rather, LeBlanc system has allowed West Virginia to play with a freewheeling style on offense while still getting back to help Noble keep opponents out of the goal. In addition to attacking the opposing net, LeBlanc's system has helped the Mountaineers control the ball and the field for long stretches, again lessening the pressure on the keeper.

With the arrival of the Big East tournament, however, the importance of defense, as it down in just about any sport, is magnified. Teams tend to play a bit more conservatively in the postseason, in an attempt to avoid the big mistake that can end championship hopes in a flash. Again, however, Noble believes that the Mountaineers will take the unorthodox approach.

"I hope we won't change our style, and I don't think we will," said the Damascus, Md. native. "We're 14-1-2, and I think that speaks to the success we have had with our system. I think the other teams might have a little more pressure on them, because they will probably have to adjust to us."

Noble also doesn't shy away from the pressure put on keepers. He knows all eyes will be on him when the Mountaineers take the pitch on Wednesday evening.

"There probably is a little more pressure on me, being in goal, but I'm a senior and I know how to deal with it," he said with disarming openness. "That's the life of the goalie. You are never the hero, but always the goat [if a goal is scored]. You learn to accept that from the moment you play the position."

Noble states that without a trace of self-pity – he knows that the average fan points the finger at a keeper when a goal is scored just as it is at a football cornerback when a wide receiver scores on a long play. It shows the strength of purpose, which defines his play in goal – the ability to put a bad play behind him and go on to the next one – just as it does in top defensive backs.

Bad plays have been few and far between for the senior leader this year. In 15 games, he has allowed just 10 goals while recording 61 saves. His play in goal allowed him to break the all-time WVU shutout record earlier this year – something he never expected to happen.

"I never even expected to start," he said of his career expectations before coming to WVU. "It was just unheard of that I'd set the record. Now that I have it, I just want to make it one higher each time I go out there. The only other thing is that I wish my teammates would get some credit for it as well."

Noble's wish to include the players in front of him is, well, a noble thought. But perhaps it's fitting for a player at a position that is always in the spotlight, no matter the result of the shot, to be singled out for some praise from time to time.

Noble, of course, doesn't concentrate on such matters. Although he knew coming in to the season that he had a shot at the record, he was more concerned with the team's prospects for the coming year. And while many observers were taken by surprise with WVU's success, he saw it coming.

"Last year, I knew we had the talent and chemistry to have a great season," he revealed. "I know we took some teams by surprise, but we adapted to Coach LeBlanc's system quickly. And for the first time in my career, we had more than two seniors on the team. That helped a lot."

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WVU, ranked third in the College poll, fourth in the NSCAA/adidas coaches' Top 25 poll and fifth in the Top 25 poll and the Soccer America poll, has now been in the top five of one or more of the four major polls for the last four weeks and has been the highest ranked BIG EAST team the past seven weeks. WVU is also fourth in the NCAA RPI rankings. Holding a top four spot in the RPI standings is critical for NCAA tournament seeding as the top four seeds named by the selection committee host three home matches. If WVU earned a top four seed it could host up to the tournament's semifinals. This year's semis and final will be held Robert R. Hermann Stadium in St. Louis, Mo.

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The Mountaineers return to action this weekend when they take on South Florida in the BIG EAST quarterfinals at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va., on Saturday, Oct. 28. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

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