After the success of last season's Big East campaign followed by one of the best postseasons in school history, the WVU men's soccer program is ready to get back on the pitch and gun after what it strives for every season: a Big East Championship and a run at the national title.
The Mountaineers will host an exhibition at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium on Saturday night against perennial power Virginia. The Cavaliers saw their season end on that very same pitch last fall, dropping a 1-0 decision as West Virginia advanced to the Sweet 16.
Since that time, much has changed in Morgantown. Gone are five starters from that Sweet 16 entry, replaced by a grand total of 16 newcomers – 14 freshmen, two transfers. Despite the litany of youth which fills out much of his roster, third-year head coach Marlon Leblanc is not interested in lowering his lofty expectations.
"I think the expectation for this program is to compete for a national championship," Leblanc said Thursday during the team's annual media day. "That's what we want to do and that's what I expect us to do every single year regardless of whether or not we have 14 freshman or if we only have two. The goal is certainly to get back to the tournament and win another Big East Championship. That doesn't change.
"Is it going to be more difficult? Absolutely it's going to be more difficult, but our goal is still to win a national title."
Listen to one thirty-second sound byte of Leblanc's refreshing, straight talk and you can see why so many talented players were willing and able to sign on the dotted line to play for the Mountaineers. From the first day he took the job – which also happened to be the first day of preseason practice in 2006 – Leblanc has taken the bull by the horns and turned West Virginia into a winner on the field, despite the adverse situation which he walked into upon agreeing to become head coach.
Leblanc's players reflect his no-nonsense style in their play, often out-hustling their opponents with fair but physical play while at the same time having an innate ability of finding the magic at the right moment to pull out a narrow victory.
With back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and a streak of staying in the Top 25 which currently sits at 25 weeks, there is little to no doubt that the Mountaineers will have something of a target on their back in the upcoming season. With so many newcomers being added to the mix, it very well might take some time for the team to gel on the pitch. To his credit, Leblanc has taken that into consideration.
"As a coaching staff, we're pushing for it to get squared away right away," he said. "We want to win right now, and I think our kids know that. It's a group that works really hard and they're all working their socks off because they see the gratification of a starting position that's open for them. I think for us as a staff, it's an exciting time. We're not worried about too much."
A big step in the rapid maturation process that the head coach expects will come during Saturday's aforementioned friendly against UVA. While the Cavs might have a little bit of added incentive to seek revenge on the team which ended their season, Leblanc is not as interested in the end result of the match as he is the events that transpire during that.
"We've got to do a lot of preparation, and with so many new guys, the result doesn't matter but we've got to have a good performance," he said. "I've got to try a number of different guys."
West Virginia will likely deploy a split squad in the match, with starters playing the first 45 minutes and reserves dominating the second half.
Even if the team is not where he wishes it to be on Saturday night, Leblanc still has nearly two weeks before the regular season begins with a match against Lafayette in the West Virginia University Classic. Between now and then, he says, more kinks will be worked out.
"It doesn't really worry me," he said. "I think it worries some of our players, because they've never been there and done that before. I think it excites me. It's just a matter of getting the right group on the field together."