After spending many years in the Big East Conference, West Virginia University bolted for the Big 12 Conference in the summer of 2012. There was just one problem: WVU sponsors men's soccer as a varsity sport, but the Big 12 doesn't. This left the Mountaineer men's soccer team without a conference home. Into the void stepped the Mid-American Conference, who invited West Virginia to become part of their eclectic eight-team league that stretches from New York to south Florida.
WVU gladly accepted and played their first conference game at home against Florida Atlantic on September 23, 2012. The Mountaineers won 4-0 and went on to record a 4-2-1 conference mark in their debut season. That was good enough for a second-place tie with Northern Illinois and a berth in the MAC Tournament, where WVU lost 1-0 to the Huskies.
Last year's successful MAC debut continued a stellar seven-year run for WVU head coach Marlon LeBlanc. In his first seven seasons, LeBlanc has led West Virginia to a 71-44-1 overall record and four berths in the NCAA Tournament. Those four appearances include three tournament victories. His teams have been in the Top-25 in each of his previous seven seasons and have won 19 games against other Top-25 teams. Even more impressive is WVU's record at home; the Mountaineers are 47-15-8 at home under LeBlanc, including 8-1 in 2012.
Based on the above, it would appear that Akron now has a formidable opponent to compete with in the MAC, and to show the Zips that the Mountaineers meant business, West Virginia played them to a very hard-fought 2-1 loss in Akron last season.
Can the MAC's newest addition really threaten the Zips' dominance, or even take the conference title from them, in 2013? Given what West Virginia will have to replace this season, either will prove to be a difficult task.
LeBlanc will have to do without six of his 11 starters from 2012. Chief among those losses is Eric Schoenle. Schoenle led WVU with six goals in 2012, including two game winners. He was named to multiple All-American teams, was named to the All-MAC team, and was also placed on the NSCAA All-Great Lakes Region team. Also gone are three other All-MAC performers -- Peabo Doue, Uwem Etuk and Travis Pittman. Etuk contributed two goals and six assists, while Pittman also had two goals to go along with four assists. Doue scored once in addition to his four assists. All told, those four players accounted for nearly half of WVU's 26 goals and over a third of the team's assists from 2012.
However, there is more distressing news. The Mountaineers also lose both goalkeepers from last season. Pat Eavenson and Yale Tiley allowed only 15 goals in 17 games and gave up more than two in a single game just once. The pair combined for six shutouts. Eavenson was the primary starter and compiled a 7-6-2 mark in 15 games, as he allowed 14 goals (0.94/game). He saved 34 shots for a .708 save percentage. Tiley played in three games and started two. He won both contests and allowed a grand total of one goal in 225 minutes, although he faced only two shots in that time.
So, what's the good news? West Virginia returns nine players who scored at least one point last season, including eight who scored at least one goal. Majed Osman was sensational in his rookie season. Despite playing just 12 of 17 games and making only seven starts, he was second on the team with three goals, four assists and ten points. Forwards Ryan Cain and Jaime Merriam, as well as defenseman Nick Raskasky, also had very good freshman seasons. Each contributed six points to WVU's effort by way of two goals and two assists. Among the few upperclassmen on this year's team, junior forward Andy Bevin comes back after scoring two goals and notching three assists in 2012. His efforts earned him second-team All-MAC honors.
At goalkeeper, West Virginia brought in a transfer from Pittsburgh to lend some experience to the position. Lee Johnston, a junior, started 15 matches last year for the Panthers. He earned a 1.75 goals-against average with 74 saves. He placed third in the Big East in total saves and second in saves-per-game. Also competing for playing time will be redshirt freshman Josh Barney and true freshman Brent Arnold.
In fact, only six of the 24 players on this year's roster carry junior or senior status. In order to compete this year, West Virginia will need more immediate contributions from freshman like they received in 2012. Marlon LeBlanc has a long track record of success and worked magic with freshmen last year, but he'll have to do even more to guide West Virginia to another winning season.
Schedule-wise, the Mountaineers open an ambitious slate with home games against Central Connecticut State and Radford. After the opening games at home, they play three of four on the road against Georgetown, Indiana and St. John's. They return home for matches with Michigan and Penn State before they open the MAC portion of their schedule. The huge match with Akron comes immediately, as the Zips visit Morgantown on September 29th. WVU also has home MAC games against Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Bowling Green. Their road MAC games are against Hartwick and Buffalo.