HUNTINGTON — Prior to Sunday, it had been 15 years since Marshall and West Virginia met on a soccer field.
As the teams took the field for the first time since 2004, however, it was as if the rivalry had never left, as Marshall goalkeeper Paulo Pita pointed out.
Pita was one Marshall player who had faced WVU twice previously — that being while he was at the University of Charleston.
“We’re big-time rivals. We’re defending the state, for sure,” Pita said. “I’ve played against West Virginia University twice when I was in Charleston, but it was a friendly game. When I was playing for Charleston, it was kind of like we’re rivals, but it is not the same thing as Marshall.”
That rivalry feel carried throughout the stands in the first half. As Marshall fans started chanting, “We Are ... Marshall”, West Virginia fans countered with “Let’s Go ... Mountaineers” — a pair of chants that echoed loudly throughout the record-crowd of 2,126 fans at Hoops Family Field on Sunday.
No. 11 Marshall’s 2-1 win over West Virginia continued a season of bar-raising feats for the Thundering Herd, but there was a bit more of an underlying tone than just advancing in the NCAA tournament.
Marshall wanted to make a statement that the teams should also meet annually and renew their rivalry — something head coach Chris Grassie pushed for upon learning of the NCAA draw.
On Sunday, the Herd made its pitch on the pitch, so-to speak, and did so in many ways — from level of play to atmosphere.
Following the win, assistant coach Petsa Ivanovic — who has spent many years in West Virginia at all levels of soccer — explained his position on the matter.
“Obviously, we wish we could play them every year,” Ivanovic said. “I think it would be really nice and create a really nice atmosphere and push soccer development in this state even further.”
West Virginia head coach Marlon LeBlanc did not exactly shut the door on the rivalry returning to the field, but he also did not offer glowing optimism, either.
LeBlanc offered numerous reasons as to why the game is difficult to schedule — travel concerns, time of year it would be played, etc. — but the biggest factor cited was the Ratings Percentage Index, which is used by the NCAA to determine potential at-large teams in the College Cup.
It was there that LeBlanc said, traditionally, the numbers don’t add up.
“This is Marshall’s best year by far — by far — in the history of this program,” LeBlanc said. “There’s so many things that go into scheduling and No. 1 — for me, I think it’s one of the worst ways that we do this — is RPI, and the RPI does not have the eye test on it. ...
“I certainly think that it will, at the end of the day, come down to RPI and making sure it’s a good game for us both, probably.”
If this season is any indication, however, the annual matchup could revive itself in the future.
Marshall finished as the national No. 11 seed and No. 10 in RPI while two other Conference USA schools — Kentucky and Charlotte — also were nationally-ranked and in the top 25 in RPI as well.
If Marshall and Conference USA continue to do well, the Herd could potentially bolster an opposing team’s RPI, such as West Virginia, who plays soccer in the Mid-American Conference.
Ivanovic’s ties to the state run much deeper than just coaching the Herd. Ivanovic played professionally for the West Virginia Chaos before moving into coaching with Grassie at the University of Charleston.
Perhaps the bigger impact for Ivanovic, though, is that he coaches several youth soccer teams, which is why he is fixated on the aspect of promoting the sport within the state, echoing Grassie’s comments from last week that soccer has more youth involvement than any other sport in the state.
“It’s amazing, and you’ve seen the atmosphere,” Ivanovic said. “It’s really nice to have that rivalry, just for the sake of soccer. You see the joy it brings to people and how it unites the community.”
While his views on the annual matchup may differ, LeBlanc was in full agreement about Sunday’s atmosphere.
“I said to my staff, ‘I wish I was playing today,’” LeBlanc said. “You love to be able to go on the road and play in games like these.”
Pita echoed their thoughts, saying it took on a different dimension than any match he’s played in with the Herd.
“I feel like everyone was waiting for this game,” Pita said. “You know, the whole state. Maybe — I don’t know — out of state as well. It’s just that big. It’s big.”
Pita was right. It is big.
Both the state’s Division I universities being among the elite in NCAA men’s soccer and winning respective conference championships is big.
Seeing a record crowd of 2,126 fans at Hoops Family Field is also big. Of note, it was also the biggest crowd that West Virginia played in front of this season, topping the Mountaineers’ 3-0 win over Penn on Sept. 28.
Heck, it was big enough that Senator Joe Manchin came down to Huntington to take in Sunday’s action, too.
Once upon a time, Manchin thought such rivalries within the state were big enough of an impact that he spearheaded a series agreement between the two universities in football.
On Sunday, Marshall made sure to give Manchin — and West Virginia — plenty of reason to think such could work in futbol, also.