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WVU Men’s Soccer

PK Shootout Win over VT Keeps WVU Men’s Soccer Alive in NCAA Tournament

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – WVU head coach Dan Stratford has been of the opinion all season that his 2021 roster is capable of a National Championship. Sunday, they got one step closer with a penalty shootout win over Virginia Tech.

The No. 11 seed WVU Mountaineers hosted the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the first round in 2018. After a first round BYE, this season’s team welcomed the Virginia Tech Hokies to Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium. Virginia Tech had defeated the Campbell Camels 2-1 on Nov. 18 to get to the second round of the tournament; that win brought the 12th meeting of the Men’s Soccer Black Diamond Rivalry back to the Mountain State after six seasons.

Playing on the turf at Dick Dlesk brought its own host of issues for the Hokies. They were scouting a West Virginia team that was undefeated at home. That home field advantage soon made itself obvious.

In the seventh minute, Fairmont, W.Va. native, senior forward Ike Swiger netted West Virginia’s first goal of the 2021 Tournament. He capitalized on a cross ball and with the first WVU shot of the game, nailed one behind the outstretched arms of Hokie keeper Ben Martino. One shot. One score.

“It’s a really good feeling,” Swiger said. “I feel like I’ve worked really hard to get to this point and it’s awesome just to represent and be a local kid and to maybe inspire some other kids coming up through, like, West Virginia soccer to try to achieve something more than just playing club or high school.”

The remaining 38 minutes moved by rather uneventfully. West Virginia had four corner kicks get deflected away. Virginia Tech had a pair of corners fall right inside the six-yard box, but WVU senior goalkeeper Steven Tekesky got behind the first one and the second went wide.

Six fouls were called on the Hokies in the first half, and although no yellow cards were booked, the game was physical enough to warrant at least three in the first half alone.

WVU entered halftime up 1-0 and hoping for a cushion goal. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the cards.

In the 56th minute, Virginia Tech forward Jacob Labovitz found the space behind Tekesky off a rocket shot from outside the box to tie the game. WVU, no stranger to overtime periods at Dick Dlesk, seemed to slow the game down and connect passes the way that they had earlier in the season. It became a game of keep away for the Mountaineers, but the situation got dicey as the Hokies began barreling down the field every possession.

The second half proved even more physical than the first. Five minutes after his goal, Labovitz was called for a yellow card. Once the yellows started, they kept flowing. Of 11 second half fouls, Virginia Tech committed 10 of them. Add three-of-four additional yellow cards to the Hokie repertoire and it became a matter of muscling each other off the ball.

Stratford was expecting physicality and it didn’t take him by surprise that this team brought that kind of tenacity to its postseason berth.

“We knew they had some threats on set pieces, on long throws,” Stratford said. “The 18 [Labovitz] is a dangerous player up front, and obviously he showed that in one small mistake for us. They were incredibly clinical to take their chance.”

At the end of regulation, the two were still battling it out for the Sweet 16 spot, tied at one a piece. The 100-minute mark came with little fanfare, but the physicality remained. VT notched another yellow card in the 100th minute, but the Hokies and Mountaineers were still without a clear winner. If the remaining 10 minutes went by sans goal, the teams would head to penalty kicks… and that they did.

Tekesky represented the Mountaineers on the line, and Martino held down the fort for Virginia Tech.

The first four PKs slipped past the keepers, but the complexity of the game changed when Labovitz’ shot was saved by Tekesky. Now tied at two, Mountaineer Bjarne Thiesen stepped up to the dot and skied one out of the stadium. Tekesky’s next threat, Daniel Starr, was minimized when a dive to the left saved the shot.

“You make a save in penalties, that’s when you tell yourself, ‘You can do this again,'” Tekesky said of his penalty kick confidence. “Made the save, and then the miss happened and I was just like, ‘Do it again.’ It’s also huge on the guys. I feel like it takes a little bit of pressure off them if you have a big save coming, but no, it’s just important.”

Stratford sent freshman Otto Ollikainen out to attempt the team’s fourth shot, and he crushed it behind Martino. Virginia Tech’s Danny Flores scored his kick as well, and it was all up to WVU’s fifth year midfielder Pau Jimenez Albelda. His shot rocketed right in and just like that, the Mountaineers were advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007, 4-3 in penalty kicks.

“I mean, to be fair, I knew that it was going to go in,” Jimenez Albelda said with a laugh. “I had confidence in myself. We’ve been practicing. To be honest, I’m the one that practices the most. Steven here makes fun of me because he says that I mess up the PK spot on the practice field, but yeah. I had confidence in myself and I had confidence in the guys, but yeah. It is a little scary when you see a six-feet-something guy in front of you… I just started running. I didn’t know what to do, what to think… It was great going to celebrate with the fans, it’s just fantastic. There’s no better feeling, honestly.”

Stratford wasn’t surprised at all that his team was able to put together such a complete game.

“Right now, there are 16 teams left in the country, and we’re one of them,” Stratford said. “We still have ambitions and expectations to go on, and I said to the players, ‘The postseason can often feel like that’s the culmination of things and that things are coming to an end. This is just the beginning. This should feel like it’s just the beginning… I’ve been involved in enough of these types of games and enough national championship runs and Final Fours to know that we have everything we need. It’ll be about the players’ mentality, the players’ belief. I truly think a day like today can actually help us to know that we’ve got through on penalties, to know that we’ve faced adversities in the fashion that we did, and that we go into whoever it is we play next weekend on the front foot again with the type of performance we showed in the first half and be a team that dictates play.”

The WVU Men’s Soccer team will play the winner of No. 6 Tulsa and Creighton, set to begin tonight at 7 p.m. EST. In the event that Tulsa is victorious, the third round game would take place at H.A. Chapman Stadium. If Creighton wins, the Mountaineers will host.

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