In the process, West Virginia lost captain and current D.C. United midfielder Devon McTavish to graduation and promising freshman forward Zak Boggs, a state native who transferred to Central Florida. The season, 16 days away at the time of LeBlanc's hire, seemed to potentially slip away before it started. Of 100-plus candidates and five on-campus interviews, it was, off all things, a Penn State assistant selected as the candidate to continue building the foundation started by Seabolt.
One problem. Seabolt's players were programmed for a defensive style, one which valued close-to-the-vest play and a wait-and-see offensive method that merely capitalized on mistakes instead of trying to create them. To outsiders, morphing mind-melded John Terry types – the English Premier League's version of Ben Wallace – and getting them to at least push like Beckham, if not bend it, looked akin to the proverbial round peg in the square hole. Good thing LeBlanc wasn't a typical L-7.
"I don't believe that at all," he said before his first regular season game. "We have a number of guys that can go forward and excite the crowd and score goals and play a brand of that soccer."
He started that Wednesday, Aug. 9, prodding, poking, most of all watching. While the media flocked to cover West Virginia's top 10 football team, LeBlanc, like most collegiate futbol coaches, was free to shuffle players, finding the pieces that fit without the Fourth Estate looming with questions as to why this tweak, why that move. In truth, the situation probably wasn't as bad as it seemed. The Mountaineers returned eight of 11 starters, including a combined seven defenders and midfielders and one forward in Jarrod Smith, a second-team Big East player and the conference's record-holder in season conference goals (12) and points (28).
LeBlanc installed a 4-4-2 set that gave the center mids more freedom to help strikers. He allowed the additional push, getting more bodies into the attack and beginning to even numbers, sometimes even extending the offense so that it would out-man foes, both up the middle and on the flanks. It didn't take immediately. When the Mountaineers went ahead 1-0 in the opener, against Fairfield, the players resorted to their former mindset. The offense bogged down, and the Mountaineers settled for a 1-0 win. A start.
"I was actually worried about that at first," goalkeeper Nick Noble said. "I thought it would be easier to attack us, that teams would get more scoring chances."
It didn't happen. What came next was a 0-0 tie to Buffalo, followed by a win over Bucknell, then the victory that registered as a national shock. West Virginia 1, No. 17 Northridge 0. Two wins later, WVU was 5-0-1, 2-0 in the Big East and facing a difficult road game at No. 21 South Florida. It would be the last time any league team did as well as tying West Virginia all regular season. The Mountaineers ripped off 10 wins in 11 games, the lone loss coming in overtime at then-No. 1 Virginia. WVU bested USF 1-0 in the Big East quarterfinals and forced No. 25 St. Johns into overtime minus Smith and Dan Stratford, its top scoring and assist threats, respectively, before losing.
That left it at 15-2-3, 10-0-1 in the Big East, the only league team in conference history ever to go through a 10-game regular season slate undefeated. LeBlanc's system, one which promised to provide extra offense without sacrificing on the other end, delivered better-than-expected returns. West Virginia allowed 13 goals this year as opposed to 24 in 2005, when it scored three fewer goals than the current 36. A major part of that is Noble, who, at 6-4, is a sizable and intimidating presence in goal. The senior owns the all-time school record with 36 shutouts, and his .63 goals against average both bests the school mark set by him last year and ranks first in the Big East. Arguably the most underrated keeper in the nation, Noble has been the backbone of a stout stop corps that has allowed just 100 shots on goal all season (5.0 per game).
The offense, meanwhile, has averaged 1.7 goals per game, a significant jump from the 1.4 last season. Its SOG percentage is up, as are its assists and corner kicks. The other stats are even more startling: The first West Virginia team to clinch consecutive NCAA berths since the 1971-73 teams went three times and the first to win a Big East regular season title and advance to the league finals. The senior class is the first to piece together three straight 10-plus win seasons, making it the winningest overall with 46 career victories.
And, when the tournament bids were announced, West Virginia's No. 6 overall seeding in the 48-team field was its highest ever. "This is undoubtedly one of the greatest days in Mountaineer men's soccer history," LeBlanc said.
The Mountaineers face the winner of UNC-Greensboro (14-7-1) and Virginia Tech (11-7-1), a game that will be played Nov. 10 in Greensboro. WVU has already beaten Tech in the preseason in a game in which it used two full sides to Tech's one. Should it win the opener, it would likely face No. 11 Saint Louis (13-4-2) – a program that has won an NCAA-record 10 titles – on Nov. 18 or 19 for a quarterfinal bid. The highest seeded team in its region is No. 3 Southern Methodist (17-1-4), a team that clinched its 13th consecutive tournament bid and 22nd overall. The top three seeds, in order, are Duke, Wake Forest and Virginia.
"I like our draw," LeBlanc told his surrounding team after the announcement. "We have already seen Tech and I like the match-up with Saint Louis. Nice job, boys." And then, to the media, "How can you complain about being seeded sixth in the country?"
LeBlanc admitted he thought West Virginia was a four or a five, leaning toward the latter after the loss to St. John's. The top four seeds have home field advantage throughout the NCAAs until the College Cup, the semifinals and finals played in St. Louis. Noble said he thought the Mountaineers might drop as far as eight or nine, the spots occupied by UCLA and Clemson.
"The committee probably took that into account," LeBlanc said of the fact that West Virginia played the Big East final minus Smith (hamstring tweak) and Stratford (red card in the semis). "You lose something when you are minus your top goal scorer and assist man. Of course it was tempting to use Smith. It's the Big East final. But now he will be rested and healthy for more important matches."
Said Noble: "I never thought I'd be here with this many people. There weren't any cameras or anything in my face when we were winning five games my freshman year. This is all you can ask for. It's a good draw."
And it's time to put that to use, to prove West Virginia can advance past the NCAA Sweet 16, or even that it can handle the tournament pressure; WVU lost 5-0 in the first round last year. As an assistant at Penn State, LeBlanc helped the Nittany Lions to three NCAA Round of 16 appearances in five years. One of those, 2002, led to a final eight pairing. He need win just one game to reach the 16 now, and two to reach the eight, both of which his side should be favored in. And then, well, it might be time to mess with Texas. Stranger things have happened in the last 13 weeks alone.
"It's the NCAAs now," LeBlanc said. "It's survive and move on, that's all. Just survive and move on."
Note: Advanced ticket sales for the West Virginia University men's soccer team's second round NCAA tournament match are set to begin Monday, Nov. 13, at the Mountaineer Ticket Office in the WVU Coliseum or can be purchased by calling 1-800-WVU-GAME.
Adult tickets for the match on Wednesday, Nov. 15, are priced at $7 apiece, while tickets for youth under the age of 18 and WVU students are $5. The first 500 WVU students with a valid I.D. to attend Wednesday night's game receive a free ticket courtesy of Coca-Cola. Wednesday's match is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va.
West Virginia received a first round tournament bye and enters the tournament as the sixth seeded team in the country, the highest ranked Big East team in the field of 48. The Mountaineers (15-2-3) will play winner of the Virginia Tech versus UNC-Greensboro match, which takes place on Saturday, Nov. 11.