MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Blink and you would have missed the action!
Head coach Dan Stratford’s No 5-ranked WVU men’s soccer team came out firing in its final test of a five-game home stand. The team, which had been trying to stress set pieces, watched the first one of tonight’s match pay off against the Ohio State Buckeyes. In the 22nd meeting of the Mountaineers and Buckeyes, Stratford wasn’t shy about wanting to add to the 11-6-4 series record.
It only took three minutes for that wish to come true. A corner, off the head of fifth year defenseman Kevin Morris, found the real estate behind Buckeye keeper Keagan McLaughlin, tallying the sole score of the game.
“We scored on the first one and nearly scored immediately after that on the second one,” Stratford said of the set piece success. “I said to the players at halftime, with the way [Ohio State] set up defensively, it was going to be hard to break them down in possession, it had to be down the sides. If that lead to corners, we’ve already proven we could score once. If that was the way we needed to win the game today, then so be it.”
With the Mountaineers up 1-0 and 87 minutes to go, it was all about maintenance. Stratford’s Mountaineers locked down possession in a game that seemed like only one side was playing. The touches were much better than in last game’s Loyola (Md) draw, and the passing was crisper. The then-3-0-1 WVU squad looked more firm and demanding, but as the minutes ticked by, the initial high of an early score began to wane.
“Internally, we knew it would be a struggle today because [WVU] put out such an incredible effort those first four games,” Stratford said of his roster tiring. “So today was just whatever it takes, really…”
What Stratford wanted was another cushion goal, but despite seven additional corners, nothing else fell.
“Obviously, if we can’t get the second goal, we have to dig a little deeper and obviously, that was the case today. As the game progressed, [Ohio State] is going to feel like they’re still in it. They’re only one goal away, and it’s natural for our players, as the second half progresses, to feel a little bit like we’re protecting something, as opposed to being on the front third… Obviously, you want to win the game by two or by three, but we’ve shown that we are very, very resilient defensively.”
The defensive work paid off. The Mountaineers held the Buckeyes to only four shots the entire game, one of which was a routine save by WVU fifth year keeper Stephen Tekesky. The Buckeyes were unable to penetrate, and the same set pieces that WVU excelled at had Ohio State players watching their scoring potential sail long over the net.
“It makes my job a lot easier to have guys in front of me who are willing to work hard defensively.” Morris said. “A clean sheet is a number one priority… We want to be in the top-10 all the time, so to start the season that way we did maybe puts a target on our back, but we want that. We want big crowds. We want that energy, We want the swagger of being a top team, and we’re going to continue to prove it.”
The Mountaineer faithful, who showed up to the tune of a sold-out Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium, donned gold and even did a celebratory round of the wave. The 2,443 fans who came out to support recorded the second largest crowd that the WVU men’s soccer program ever housed.
“We needed them again, and they showed up for us…” Stratford said of the packed house. “We turned up maybe an hour before kickoff and there’s already 400 people here. That’s unheard of. Truly, this is becoming one of the best atmospheres in men’s soccer in the country.”
In terms of electric fanbases, the Mountaineers have another great game on the horizon. They’ll be 4-0-1 going into next Friday’s match-up against the reigning national champion no. 10 Marshall Thundering Herd. The in-state rival (2-1-1) will play WVU’s MAC foe Bowling Green tomorrow before settling back in Huntington for the Mountaineer’s welcome.