I’m not a sports historian and I don’t play one on television.
Yet I can unequivocally state this is a special week for West Virginia University athletics.
The traditionally strong Mountaineer rifle team is back at No. 1 nationally in the Collegiate Rifle Coaches Association poll.
But that’s not the only WVU team sitting at No. 1.
After watching the Mountaineer women’s team riding high for years, the school’s men’s team is now No. 1 in both the TopDrawerSoccer and College Soccer News polls.
It’s a heck of an achievement for WVU coach Dan Stratford.
“We’re used to seeing rifle up there,” Stratford said on Tuesday. “That’s nothing new, but we’re glad to join the party.”
It’s been quite a whirlwind of late for the Mountaineer men. They are fresh off a Sun Belt Conference win at Coastal Carolina, but, more importantly, are riding the momentum of a 5-2 victory over previous No. 1 Marshall before a record crowd of 3,147 in Morgantown. In the first 12 games, MU conceded just five goals. In the game at WVU, the Mountaineers scored five. West Virginia’s Marcus Calderia was named the NCAA Player of the Week after scoring a hat trick.
WVU is now 11-0-4 (.867) and 4-0-3 in league play with wins over then-No. 3 Portland, a tie with then-No. 5 UCF and the victory over Marshall at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium on their resume.
It’s a terrific moment for the Mountaineer program. And the big question to Stratford was simply this: How did you get to these heights?
“Beats me,” he chuckled. “I don’t know. We have high standards for the program and always aspire to be in or around the Top 10 every year. I think if you’re in that conversation, you give yourself the potential to be in these dizzying heights and be No. 1.”
“I don’t think anyone is getting too carried away and we are being realistic because know how fine the margins are,” he continued. “But we’re a team outsiders would say underperformed last year. It wouldn’t have taken much last year for us to be a Top 10 program.”
So, yeah, you can hear in his voice he’s taking a beat and enjoying the moment – before taking his team to fellow league member Kentucky on Friday. The Wildcats were once ranked as high as No. 2 before losses piled up. This past Sunday, though, they also defeated Marshall when the Thundering Herd was No. 1.
“The margins are so fine within men’s college soccer these days in Division I,” Stratford said. “There’s so much depth and parity.”
Although he said NIL hasn’t much come into play, the soccer “global market recruiting and transfer portal” give teams chances to quickly improve.
Still, give these Mountaineers their due. They’ve outscored opponents 32-14. Caldeira, Yutaro Tsukada, Sergio Ors Navarro and Luke McCormick give them a better attacking threat than the last couple of seasons. Goalkeeper Jackson Lee has seven “clean sheets,” which is Top 10 in the country. And Stratford said those usually in front of Lee — Freddie Jorgensen, Carlos Hernando (before injury), Max Broughton and Brayden Borutskie – have all played well.
Yet there must be a secret sauce of something more than high standards, right?
“I’d like to think we’ve worked hard on redefining the culture to where good performances translate to good results, which evaded us last season,” said the coach. “And momentum is a huge piece of it. When you’re unbeaten through 15 games, it’s easy to carry that momentum and winning only breeds more. A lot of things have fallen into place quite nicely. The social dynamic of this team is unbelievable. There’s a good collective of team spirit. Players are acceptant of their roles and that’s made easier when you’re getting these results. We’re riding that wave and hoping to continue. It’s been a four-year work in progress. Right now things are going good.”
The win against Portland was the season’s first landmark victory, but Stratford looked at the bigger picture.
“We looked at the schedule and knew we had to get off to a good start,” he said. “We knew they were a Top 10 team. We got off to a perfect start winning the first four games. That was a perfect storm because we gained some stock and had some equity.”
Of course, the biggest moment was not only knocking off Marshall – a 2020 national champion – but also Stratford’s buddy, Herd coach Chris Grassie. A former WVU player, Stratford joined Grassie’s staff at the University of Charleston before taking the head coaching position. In his three-year stay at UC, Stratford led the Golden Eagles to a 61-4-5 record with two national championships in 2017 and 2019.
“We’re still incredibly close,” Stratford said. “We met up before the game, the night before. We grabbed a glass of wine before the game and chatted about the game, football and life in general. I’d anticipate Chris is still able to look at that and be incredibly proud of what we’ve collectively created in our state. I’m sure he was disappointed in the result, but I’m sure they’ll bounce back. There’s a lot of positives. The last time we were in Huntington they broke attendance records.”
Stratford’s mantra is pressure is a privilege. And now, he claims, both programs are feeling that privilege.
“In a way, we need one another to raise the profile of college soccer in West Virginia,” Stratford said. “The growth has been great for both programs.”
It’s certainly been great for WVU this season.
“We had a game plan against Marshall we executed perfectly,” said the Mountaineer coach. “We pride ourselves on being the most intelligent team in the country. That allows you to have more versatility. We have certain principles and aspects of our identity with the ball and without the ball. So, you need intelligent players to adapt.”
Just like against the Herd.
“That was probably the proudest I’ve been because it was undeniably a huge occasion for both teams,” Stratford said. “To perform as well as we did under that pressure says a lot about where the team is at.”
Which, at this moment, is squarely No. 1.
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Mitch Vingle covered sports in West Virginia for 38 years. Follow Mitch on Twitter at @MitchVingle and be sure to check out the rest of Wheelhouse Creative’s website for your marketing and advertising needs. If interested, call us at 304-905-6005.