So how in the world did the state of West Virginia become a haven for college soccer?
When you think of the Mountain State and football, it’s normally more about the oblong version of the sport than the spherical. Yet take a look around. There’s plenty of evidence that the sport of soccer, at least at the collegiate level, has a strong home here.
Allow me to guide the tour.
Let’s start in Huntington, where a couple of weeks ago more than 2,200 people packed the Veterans Memorial Soccer Complex to watch West Virginia University and Marshall University’s men’s programs duke it out for a spot in the NCAA Division I tournament round of 16. The Thundering Herd beat the Mountaineers for that honor and that match was the most attended of any NCAA second-round match that weekend.
Marshall fell in the round of 16, but Herd coach Chris Grassie in just three seasons got the team further in the postseason than ever before. And while we’re on the subject of Grassie, head east from Huntington to Charleston.
There, you’ll find the University of Charleston men’s soccer program that Grassie helped build into a national Division II powerhouse. Dan Stratford took over from him, won a 2017 Division II national title and has the Golden Eagles ready for Thursday’s Division II round of 16 at Gannon.
From Charleston, travel north to Morgantown, and take a gander at both the WVU men’s and women’s soccer teams. WVU men’s coach Marlon LeBlanc had the Mountaineers in their second straight NCAA tournament after winning three straight matches in the Mid-American Conference tournament to take that championship and earn a 2019 NCAA berth.
And if there’s one thing the WVU women and coach Nikki Izzo-Brown know, it’s NCAA tournaments. The Mountaineer women just finished up their 20th straight NCAA tournament appearance with a round of 16 loss. Think about that — there are players on the WVU roster who weren’t born when the team started that streak. And that’s a streak that has included 17 conference championships and a 2016 NCAA runner-up trophy.
So how did West Virginia college teams get so good at soccer? One thread throughout is that all those coaches know how to get the best players, wherever they come from. They might be in-state products like Fayettville’s Courtney Smith on the WVU women’s team or Charleston’s Justin Jun on the Marshall men’s team. They might be from overseas. All those teams sport players from locales like Canada, Germany, Brazil and even Cyprus. Those coaches aren’t bashful about racking up frequent flyer miles, especially if they turn into NCAA tournament runs.
And don’t think that success doesn’t have an effect on the younger generation. I was on the sideline watching that WVU-Marshall match. And when I looked into the stands, among those thousands of fans were plenty of kids. You don’t think their love for the game got juiced when a match with stakes that high happened right in their backyard?
Is youth soccer in West Virginia at a level of California, Florida or even Virginia? Not yet, but you can see the seeds starting to sprout. Between Cabell, Putnam and Kanawha counties, there were eight high school teams that qualified for the state soccer semifinals. Three played in title matches and two — George Washington’s boys and Charleston Catholic’s girls — won state titles. And if soccer didn’t have a foothold in West Virginia, a facility like the Shawnee Sports Complex wouldn’t have broken ground, much less hold two of U.S. Youth Soccer’s biggest tournaments this past summer.
There’s plenty of room to grow the sport among the mountains. What’s happening at colleges all around West Virginia is just the right kind of food to help that happen.