Category archive: West Virginia Mountaineers
The celebration could begin without her. A stroke of coaching genius and a good tape job made sure it would last.
Playing for the first time in more than a month because of a partially torn hamstring, Keppler came on as a second-half substitute and scored her first career goal with four minutes to play against the Scarlet Knights. When she came on with about 20 minutes to play, it also marked, by her account, her first game action as a forward since she was about 9 years old. A midfielder in high school and club soccer, she began her West Virginia career by moving to center back before the injury.
"Honest to God, I'm not a forward," Keppler offered, a touch of amazement at what had just transpired still in her voice. But in the midst of a season in which West Virginia has started 10 freshmen and sophomores at various times and had scored just 19 goals in 19 games before Sunday's quarterfinal, coach Nikki Izzo-Brown had something else in mind when it became evident that Keppler might be able to provide 15 or 20 minutes of energy off the bench.
"What she brings is she brings speed, strength and obviously she can strike a ball," Izzo-Brown said. "Obviously, her qualities were something that I thought would just mix it up and something that we don't have up top and that could really help us.
"And obviously, for Keppler to finish that was brilliant. And she has it in her. She might claim that she only plays defense, but we've seen her, in training, dribble through our whole team and finish. It wasn't anything shocking to me."
Keppler's ongoing battle with the balky hamstring -- she played six minutes against South Florida at the end of September, two weeks after the initial injury, only to suffer another setback -- had been an apt metaphor for a team's season of frustration. West Virginia had wins against Penn State, Tennessee, Marquette and St. John's but still found itself too close to the NCAA tournament bubble for comfort entering the conference tournament.
Sunday's win ought to secure at least an at-large bid. And perhaps Keppler's perseverance was again a metaphor.
• A quick return to Portland: It's a legacy of former Pilots coach Clive Charles that the Pilots play attractive, technical soccer, something that lives on through current coach Garrett Smith. But the speed with which they do it this season -- particularly down the flanks -- is striking to watch. And it's something Smith said compares favorably to even the 2005 undefeated national championship team.
"I think our overall team speed may be a little bit better," Smith said last week. "When you start looking from Michelle Enyeart, just raw, athletic speed that can get by anybody at any time and create a bunch [of opportunities], to Kendra Chandhoke out wide right to Kendall Johnson wide left -- and the two players sitting in behind those two [Elli Reed and Jessica Tsao] aren't slow, either."
It also says all you need to know about the personal responsibility inherent in the program's philosophy that Enyeart and Sophie Schmidt came to Smith early in the season with the suggestion they switch positions -- Enyeart to forward and Schmidt to attacking midfielder -- and that Smith trusted two of his co-captains enough to do it.
The Pac-10 and West Coast Conference, demonstrating that coast's admirable ability to take life at a more leisurely pace, don't start conference play for another couple of weeks. But putting those two leagues aside for the moment, how do things look elsewhere?
Sadly, Neil Patrick Harris wasn't available to host, so you're stuck with me.
Early test: Boston College at Florida State, Sunday
Is North Carolina vulnerable after Sunday's 0-0 tie against Auburn? Don't bet on it -- the only two goals the Tar Heels have allowed all season came opening night at the end of a 7-2 rout against UCLA on a sloppy field. But this game in Tallahassee will be a showdown of perhaps the two teams best equipped to challenge the defending champs. After seeing the Eagles on Sunday, I'd put a midfield of Gina DiMartino, Julia Bouchelle and Kristen Mewis up against any group out there.
September surprise: Easily Maryland, which has a 1-0 win against Santa Clara to validate an 8-0-0 start. The Terrapins actually get first crack at the Seminoles, as they'll visit Tallahassee on Thursday.
Early test: Kansas at Oklahoma State, Sunday
The Jayhawks got off to a fast start last season but finished under .500 in conference play, including a 1-3-1 record away from Lawrence. Oklahoma State is the defending conference champion but dropped its conference opener against Colorado (the lone Big 12 game played thus far). Texas A&M still seems like the class of the league, especially after beating Portland 3-1 this past weekend, but Sunday's game in Stillwater is a chance for the Jayhawks to show they're a real challenger and the Cowgirls to show they're not ready to be deposed.
September surprise: At this point, we know more about most Big 12 teams' ability to schedule advantageously than their ability to play great soccer, but Nebraska's prolific offense -- paced by freshman Morgan Marlborough's 13 goals -- is worth noting.
Early test: Rutgers at Georgetown, Friday
Georgetown produced the most emphatic result of the first Big East weekend, drubbing Villanova 4-0 (although the Hoyas then tied Penn 3-3 on Sunday). Like Santa Clara's Jordan Angeli, Georgetown's Sara Jordan returned for a sixth year after an injury-plagued career and has helped in tangible (four goals, four assists) and intangible ways.
September surprise: Minus a lost weekend in Philadelphia (defeats to Drexel and Penn), Pitt has enjoyed a banner September, capped by a win at Ohio State and a tie against West Virginia this past weekend in Morgantown, always a tough stop for Big East teams.
Early test: Penn State at Michigan State, Sunday
The Spartans were 7-0-1 entering Sunday's 1-1 draw at Eastern Michigan, but the result raises questions, given the caliber of opponent in many of those wins. The good news is they get a shot at instant credibility against Penn State. The Nittany Lions took the opposite route early, persevering through six consecutive one-goal games, including four losses, against likely NCAA tournament teams before breezing past Boston University and James Madison.
September surprise: Indiana reached the Sweet 16 two years ago, so surprise is a little strong, but the Hoosiers, at 8-1-0, including a win against Florida, are perhaps ahead of schedule.
Early test: Georgia at LSU, Friday
Two familiar conference contenders in recent seasons open this year's conference slate. After a disappointing opening loss at home against Memphis, the Tigers have shown a lot of fight, including a 1-0 loss against North Carolina and 2-2 tie against Duke this past weekend. Georgia has played a good schedule, albeit one short on ranked opponents, and will look to return the favor after LSU beat it in Athens last season. (The Bulldogs are 14-4-0 since that loss.)
September surprise: South Carolina is the undefeated SEC team with championship aspirations, but forget the quality of the schedule and give Mississippi State full marks for an 8-0-0 start. That's more wins than in any of the past four full seasons.
And bring an umbrella.
All right, perhaps the weather was a one-time issue Friday, when Mother Nature and spartan accommodations combined to make a soggy mess of matters (although the field held up far better than the scribe). But on the field, the hosts turned in two dramatic finishes against quality opponents in the Villanova Classic and improved to 2-0-1 this season.
Kelly Eagan's strike in the closing minutes of double overtime gave Villanova a 2-1 win against Virginia Tech on Friday, and Katie Ryan's 90th-minute goal Sunday led to a 2-2 draw against Nebraska.
I was on hand only for the former, but coach John Byford's early assessment proved prophetic.
"What we take away from it is just the way we fought," Byford said of the win over Virginia Tech. "And that was something we didn't have as much last year, and as I said to the kids this year, that will take us a long way. If we can grind out games, just compete and compete and compete, we have enough talent to score."
Eagan is a three-time all-Big East selection and an anchor in the middle of defense, as Virginia Tech standout Emily Jukich learned with frustration. She's also a walking definition of clutch, with all five career goals serving as game winners, including two in overtime. But if Eagan is the face of Villanova, Rachel Schuyler may symbolize this team's upside and the program's future under its second-year coach. Byford didn't recruit Schuyler, but with a big leg and creativity, she's a perfect piece for a system built on playing fluid, attacking football.
"Rachel's got the ability," Byford said. "For a kid who's not very big, she's very good in the air. She can hit good, quality long passes -- not just smack the ball forward, she can play a good, quality pass. And we've got a lot of pace up front. She's a gamer. Sometimes she's not the best practice player, but when the game's on, she comes to play."
A young Villanova team with a new coach gave up 28 goals in 19 games last season, the most per game in more than a decade. But last year's team also scored better than two goals per game for the first time since 2001. Virginia Tech had the edge in attack for much of the second half Friday, but given the conditions and the calendar, Villanova's ability to build through midfield and get the ball to the extremely impressive Ryan hinted at what could be in store this fall.
• STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Another week and another good show in the middle of Pennsylvania.
Starting a rebuilt back line that included two sophomores and one freshman, No. 14 West Virginia pulled out a 2-1 win against No. 8 Penn State. The Mountaineers withstood a Nittany Lions attack that produced 14 shots and enjoyed the run of play for much of the second half.
With so much youth, West Virginia may not hit its stride until conference play. But after a 2-0 exhibition loss against Maryland and a 0-0 tie against Ohio State to open the regular season, Saturday's physical battle represented about eight steps in the right direction.
The Mountaineers have a lot of parts, if not proven pieces, in the attack (led by the healthy return of Megan Mischler), and whatever ups and downs are ahead, they have a nascent identity.
"I think when you have such a young team as we have, it's such a learning curve but it's such a quick curve," coach Nikki Izzo-Brown said. "And these girls have worked so hard in the last two weeks. The staff has put in so many hours and the girls have put in so many hours; I mean, it's a 360."