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April 13, 2012

Women’s soccer has come a long way at WVU

MORGANTOWN — Back in the early days of the women’s movement, before the world had banned such things as tobacco advertising, Virginia Slims cigarettes had one of the most effective advertisements ever done, aiming their sales pitch toward women on the theme “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

That theme slipped back into the consciousness of one formerly middle-aged sports columnist recently when he saw West Virginia’s women’s soccer team off on a tour of Spain, for such a trip that put them eyeball-to-eyeball with solid European teams, some of them professional, brought on the realization that this group really has come a long way, baby.

It seems like only yesterday, although the program’s only coach ever, Nikki Izzo-Brown, assures a visitor to her office that it has already been 16 years since she came to West Virginia after an All-American career at Rochester and a brief stint as an assistant coach at West Virginia Wesleyan.

While her office is hardly spacious, as are those that house the basketball and football coaches, it is double the size of the office she shared her first season with another coach from another sport.

And, she was lucky to have that.

She didn’t even have her own field to practice on, having to go off campus for practices.

Today, though, she enjoys not only the luxury of European trips, but of her own practice field across the street from the Coliseum and a full-sized stadium that stands in tribute to the program’s accomplishments.

When women’s soccer was started at West Virginia in 1995 under athletic director Ed Pastilong, it was simply something to build up the number of women athletes on scholarship to help fulfill Title IX requirements, but Izzo-Brown was not about to accept that.

“I always thought we could succeed here,” she said.

You can’t even say it came slowly, for she won in that first, prehistoric era.

It wasn’t easy, to be sure. The Big East is a strong soccer conference and she was competing against some deep, established programs.

Determination, however, drove her. She was intense and crafty, a good coach and a great recruiter, bringing in players whom she could develop into All-Americans, 14 of them. If their names didn’t reach cult status such as Patrick White and Da’Sean Butler, they were known throughout the soccer world.

Players like Chrissie Abbott, Deanna Everett and Lisa Stoia began leading the team to NCAA berths with regularity, putting West Virginia on the soccer map.

And with the success of the program, Izzo-Brown was able to build a women’s soccer community in Morgantown and the North Central West Virginia area that has developed both players and fans, men and women, at that.

It has been a smooth ride, if over a tough road, and Izzo-Brown has remained the loyal Mountaineer.

She admits she’s had overtures to leave, and yes she used some of them to get improvements in the program, but she never felt she had to move on the way many of the coaches around her did.

Women’s soccer at West Virginia has her stamp all over it. She did it right way, right down to the trip to Madrid and Barcelona, where they picked up on a different style of soccer, a European style.

“The way they play the ball never goes higher than the chest and the longest pass is maybe 30 yards,” she said. “Any time you go over and play in an international arena, you get a different appreciation for the game of soccer. This is especially true in Spain, where they are so focused on technical ability and passing. I think it opened our eyes to how much soccer is a part of their entire lifestyle.”

Some of it the Mountaineers will incorporate what they saw into their own game, although the American style does differ from that of the Europeans.

As important as soccer, though, was the taste culture and history, of Spanish food and art work.

“Some of the churches were built in the 16th century,” one of her players, Frances Silva, marveled.

Silva, a native of Venezuela although she has lived in the United States since she was 2 and a half, speaks fluent Spanish and served as translator for much of the trip. The soccer wasn’t bad for her, either, as she netted all three goals in a 3-0 victory over FC Torrejon in Madrid.

Silva scored all six WVU goals in their tour that resulted in three victories in four games.

The rest of the time they just toured and shopped and enjoyed the food.

“It was cool to see how many people ride Vespas and bikes,” Erin Brown noted in her diary from Spain.

The team also toured any number of major soccer stadia, amazed at seeing stadia that held from 85,000 to 120,000 fans, much as do America’s football stadiums. The largest is FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium.

“I think for us to be able to see that stadium and the trophy rooms and the understanding of its history — it’s just unbelievable,” Izzo-Brown said. “I got chills just looking at it.”

Among the sights and sites they saw was the Monterrat, just north of Barcelona, know for its jagged mountain landscape and the basilica and monastery at Montserrat. The basilica houses the Black Madonna, a statue of Mary in which she is depicted with dark skin.

This trip was not without its own bit excitement, too, as while they visited there was a general strike of workers that turned into a riot, making everyone feel uneasy and cutting down on the shopping, as all the shops were closed.

Now, they are back in America and getting ready for another step forward in their development, moving into the Big 12. While this would seem on the surface to be a daunting challenge, at least travelwise, it is not.

In truth, there are only nine soccer playing teams in the conference, Kansas State not fielding a women’s team.

Opponents play each other only once a year.

“That’s just four road games and four home games,” Izzo-Brown noted.

While they won’t be as easy as getting on a bus and heading to Villanova or Georgetown, there just isn’t a whole lot of it. The travel will be done by air, but not charter.

There are those who will tell you that WVU is taking a step down by going to the Big 12, that the competition will not be as difficult as the Big East, but Izzo-Brown doesn’t see it quite that way. She notes that there are half as many Big 12 teams, and that while the top of the Big East may be a big tougher than the Big 12, the bottom houses weaker teams.

She also plans to play her non-conference games in the area, still picking up games against the likes of Georgetown or Villanova or Notre Dame.

While the move to the Big 12 doesn’t figure to widen WVU’s recruiting horizons much, considering only four trips out there a season, Izzo-Brown does say she’s hopeful of landing a recruit or two from soccer-crazed Texas.

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