West Virginia defender extraordinaire Kadeisha Buchanan named espnW player of the year
At almost the same moment on an August afternoon that West Virginia played its season opener against Penn State, beginning a journey that now finds it two wins from its first national championship, the team's best player was otherwise occupied winning an Olympic bronze medal a hemisphere away.
As the Mountaineers concluded that first week with a game against Buffalo, Kadeisha Buchanan instead soaked in the Olympic closing ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro. She even met Usain Bolt.
Which is to say that from the outset this season, Buchanan ran in different circles than your typical college senior.
Different circles than even your typical All-American, for that matter.
But it is what Buchanan has done since arriving back in Morgantown from Rio that makes the defender espnW's national player of the year. After a tie in their opening game without her, the Mountaineers have gone 21-1-1 with her in the lineup. They shut out the Big 12 for an entire conference season, allowing nary a goal in eight consecutive games. They earned the program's first No. 1 seed and survived both snow and foes to reach their first College Cup.
Center backs rarely get to be stars. The position is responsible as much for defusing highlights before they occur as creating them in their own right. But already a World Cup and Olympic veteran for Canada at the age of 21, Buchanan can't help but be the center of attention for West Virginia. Her command of a craft stands out like, well, Bolt sprinting away from the pack in Rio. None of her peers do it as well as she does it.
"She is a soccer mind," West Virginia coach Nikki Izzo-Brown said. "She's commanding. She knows where everyone needs to be. She's directing, she's orchestrating. Coaches will always tell you that they need great leadership to be successful, and that's exactly what we have in Keisha back there."
It is difficult to quantify what makes a defender special, let alone the best player in the nation. Though they may score goals, as Buchanan has three times this season, and make themselves useful on set pieces, compiling statistics isn't a center back's primary work. Beyond the mere eye test, assessing Buchanan is a process of deduction. West Virginia has the second-stingiest defense in the nation. Buchanan is the team's best defender, backed up by an international pedigree that includes being named the best young player in the 2015 World Cup and a member of FIFA's all-star team for that tournament.
Someone to whom all that applies, who North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance suggested might be the best center back in the nation -- a few weeks into her freshman season -- must be pretty good, right?
Yet no matter how brilliant her soccer mind or impressive her athleticism, a defender will struggle to excel alone. Maybe more than any other position, a center back is dependent on the collective. And it is in that regard that Buchanan has grown from an amazing talent into a world-class player. Gone is the quiet reserve of a 17-year-old freshman who just wanted to play, not speak or lead.
"When she's telling someone to move, they're moving," Izzo-Brown said of what she sees now. "And people respond so well to her, and understand that she knows the game so well, that she is our fourth coach out there. ...
"It's like having a coach behind your team coaching."
Even if leading from behind isn't exactly what Buchanan hoped for in Morgantown. It may be a myth that a frustrated striker inhabits the soul of every great defender, but Buchanan won't help dispel it. She had already debuted for the senior Canadian national team by the time she arrived at West Virginia, having previously earned a reputation as an up-and-coming defender on youth national teams. So she knew her role in college would likely follow that same route. But with a veteran back line already in place for the Mountaineers, the former striker for her club team hoped she might get some of the goals for herself.
"Those dreams died very quickly," Buchanan said. "I knew coming into West Virginia that I was going to play center back. I kind of wanted to play forward, but Coach didn't let me. I got over it."
Her tongue-in-cheek tone made it clear it wasn't an entirely serious lament. Not entirely.
But twice this season the Mountaineers have needed Buchanan to revive her old skills.
Down 2-0 at halftime against TCU in the Big 12 tournament final, matching the number of goals they conceded in the 12 games immediately preceding that contest, the Mountaineers pushed Buchanan into the attack in the second half. With a little more than a minute remaining in regulation, she scored the tying goal that brought on overtime and teammate Ashley Lawrence's eventual winner.
That was a game the Mountaineers very much wanted, the opportunity to sweep the conference tournament and regular-season titles. Then, when Buchanan stepped to a snowy spot as the fifth and final Mountaineer in a Sweet 16 penalty shootout against UCLA, a goal was a necessity.
In a shootout for the first time since the 2014 tournament, when West Virginia lost to Georgetown, Buchanan lined up an attempt. Izzo-Brown said she asked Buchanan if she wanted to be on the list of takers. Buchanan didn't hesitate. She drilled the ball into the net, turned and leaped into the air as onrushing teammates swarmed her.
West Virginia is most comfortable when its season is at her feet.
Although she knew of the College Cup growing up -- plenty of Canadian national team players were veterans of NCAA championships in the United States -- it wasn't until a second-round loss against Virginia Tech her freshman year that she fully felt its importance. It is the biggest prize she can win in this uniform.
"I've got to get one before I leave," Buchanan recalled thinking.
She has since starred in a World Cup on home soil and won a bronze medal in the Olympics.
And in her final college season, the best player in the nation has done all she can to give herself a chance at a different trophy.