Then-top-seeded WVU was one win away from what would have been perceived as a near-miracle in the preseason. First-year head coach Marlon LeBlanc had West Virginia ranked No. 4 in the nation and on an 12-game Big East unbeaten streak. The Red Storm were a mere formality in the league finals, until leading scorer Jarrod Smith wasn't cleared to play because of a hamstring injury and fellow starter Dan Stratford was forced to sit because of a semifinal red card.
With 4.4 seconds left, Adam Himeno struck the game-winner to secure SJU's eighth Big East postseason championship – and deny West Virginia its first. The hangover, plus sloppy field conditions, combined to end the Mountaineers' run when they missed two penalty kicks in a 2-1 double overtime home defeat against UNC-Greensboro in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The upset was made more bitter by a horde of other surprising scores that would have left the Mountaineers as the top seeded team on their side of the bracket, meaning they would have hosted every game until the national semifinals in St. Louis.
Back in the same position again, this time with an early-season meeting at St. John's that will determine much of the conference standings, West Virginia is eyeing tonight's 8 p.m. match in Jamaica, N.Y. as a chance for redemption.
"You're looking at a team that beat us 1-0 in the Big East championship game last season," LeBlanc said. "And it wasn't just that they beat us. It was the way they beat us with (seconds) left on the clock in overtime. It was one of those heartbreaking losses and certainly a game we did not expect to lose. We expect to be at full strength and give it a go."
St. John's is a shell of its former self. Just 2-3-1 on the season, the Red Storm still have enough talent to force superior teams to play on a lower level. SJU lost at No. 6 Virginia in overtime and have shockingly managed a 35-13 edge in corner kicks and a 62-56 advantage in shots. No. 5 West Virginia, meanwhile, has used an attacking mindset and dominant back line to protect freshman keeper Zach Johnson. The Mountaineers (4-1), have victories over powerhouses No. 6 Maryland and No. 5 Duke, both away, and a 1-0 win over Penn State – LeBlanc's former school – in Columbus, Ohio.
The start has enthralled collegiate soccer enthusiasts, as the Mountaineers jumped eight poll spots in one week to regain the top five standing. Potentially a one-year wonder when the season began, the three victories, paired with a decision against Duquesne, have WVU off the anonymous ledger and into the national psyche. The mishmash of offensive firepower and defensive grit are a nightmare for opponents and, even after losing Smith – an All-American and the all-time single-season goals and points leader in Big East history - and Nick Noble as the first and seventh picks overall in the Major League Soccer draft, West Virginia has failed to slip.
LeBlanc, National Coach of the Year last season, poked and prodded for the combination that would click. An offensive mind with more defensive talent, LeBlanc has never struggled with competing ideologies too often deemed mutually exclusive.
"We are still attacking," LeBlanc said. "When you look at how many shots on goal we are giving up it is less than what we gave up last year and we were scoring more. We are pinning teams back and at the same time playing better competition. We're creating opportunities while defending very well as a team."
West Virginia (4-1) allowed 47 shots, but just 12 on goal, through its first five games. It tallied 52 shots, 18 on goal, and has utilized its experienced backfield to allow Johnson to ease into his roll filling Noble's vacancy. The 6-5, 185-pounder has four shutouts in five games and has helped put WVU on the verge of setting the school record for consecutive minutes played without allowing a goal.
"Not much has changed," said Johnson. "His scheme has been the same throughout: a good offense helps a good defense. He has an attacking mind, sending our outside backs forward a lot. We bring our pace to the other team, take our style to opponents and not let them dictate what we do."
West Virginia, picked third in the Big East Blue Division preseason poll, plays two league road games – the second against a quick Syracuse squad – before returning home to face unbeatens DePaul and South Florida. Should WVU win both cross division contests, it would easily place itself in prime position to dominate the conference for a second straight season and assure a school-record third consecutive trip to the NCAAs.
"I could care less whether we are first in the country, fifth in the country or 35th in the country. I want this team to get better," LeBlanc said. "Had we not been here and handled it so well last year, perhaps I would be worried. But we handled the pressure of playing as the hunted team. I'm glad we're not playing our best soccer. There are two months left in the season. When you put that into perspective, it's good that we can compete with the top teams in the nation not playing our best. When we start clicking on all cylinders, we are going to be a very good team."
West Virginia faced a major test against Duke's offensive-oriented lineup and was able to be aware of angles taken by the Blue Devil forwards without having to mark the players man-to-man for the entire 90 minutes. LeBlanc's pre-game prep allowed WVU to push forward while also readying itself for a quick retreat should Duke counterattack. That helped backline build confidence in and trust for Johnson as the team readies for what fans consider its major Big East stretch of the year. After St. John's, Syracuse, USF and DePaul, the Mountaineers face the only two teams ahead of them in the league preseason poll - Notre Dame and Connecticut - Oct. 6 and 19. UConn, a two-time national champion ranked second in the country, must come to Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium. WVU plays at No. 4 Notre Dame.
"I said all along there are going to be stumbles along the way," LeBlanc said. "We were in the top five for a long time last year, and we're back here again. When you look at the schedule we have played so far and the teams ahead of us, especially when they haven't done anything to deserve to be ahead of you, it's always good fuel for the fire."
As if the Red Storm needed any more heat.