MORGANTOWN — University High soccer coach Graham Peace hasn’t always called West Virginia home.
Before he came to know the country roads of the Mountain State, he grew up an ocean away. A native Englander, Peace shared a bond with the sport of soccer from a young age — it is a much bigger sport in the U.K., as well as most European nations. While Americans today grow up watching Tom Brady and LeBron James, European children idolize Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
So for Peace, this happens to be a very important time. The 2018 World Cup is upon us and hitting its stride, and Peace couldn’t be more excited.
After all, it only happens every four years.
As a coach, he also sees the Cup as a teaching moment. It just so happens that this year’s WVSSAC three-week summer period coincides with the tournament, and he wants to use that to give the girls on his squad a unique summer experience.
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the World Cup and the culture of soccer,” he said. “I want them to understand how important soccer is. It’s something that truly unites almost every country.”
Even luck was on Peace’s side for the experiment. As long as he can remember, his team was assigned the 7-9 a.m. practice slot by UHS during the summer practices. This year, the opening game just happened to align with practice time, so Peace sat the team down to watch it.
“I also want them to understand the passion behind the sport of soccer. To me, that makes soccer the greatest game in the world,” he said. “It’s more than a game even. It brings people together; it unites people.”
The Hawks are now in their second week of practice, and it appears that the players on his team are buying into his approach.
Senior Eva Bridges, one of seven returning starters from the 2017 UHS state runner-up squad, believes the focus on the World Cup is great motivation to get the summer practices started.
“Having the World Cup starting right after our training is a great way to get our season going,” she said. “Getting more involved in the game and the culture that comes with it lets us get excited for our own season.”
Stephanie Chmiel, a senior WVU commit and another returning starter, is also happy with the approach and how it is affecting practice. She thinks it pay dividends for the team by the end of the process.
“I think using the Cup to help teach us about the culture and importance of soccer is beneficial to everyone on the team, from freshman to seniors,” she said.
One aspect of the Cup that Chmiel is particularly focusing on is how the teams in the field play. She hopes observing the details can help her build a better understanding of the game.
“Watching these teams allows us to see various formations that we may use ourselves this season,” she said. “Watching the way the teams play in the World Cup, we can have a better understanding of strategies and the game overall.”
With Peace’s fun spin on the three-week period and the team’s commitment to the experience, it looks to be an exciting time on the pitch for the Hawks. They look to re-capture the fire of last year’s second-place finish in the state, as well as the previous year’s state championship.
However, the squad lost 11 seniors, including last year’s Player of the Year (Braden Pickett), Defender of the Year (Leah Marsh), and Goalie of the Year (Maya Shetty).
“We’ve had a terrific run the past couple of years. When you lose 11 seniors, you’re transitioning. We’re transitioning from this team,” Peace said. “It’s going to be a challenge to figure out the lineup, who can play where and what formations we can play, so it should be a fun team.
“It’s a going to be a rebuilding process, but the attitude has been great in the locker room. We’re going to go out and be the best we can be.”
With momentum strong and energy high, Peace is glad to be back to what he and his team do best — playing soccer.
“We’re really looking forward to the season. We love playing soccer, and I love my team,” he said. “We’re glad to be back together again and we’re looking forward to a great season.”