MORGANTOWN — Consider Nikki Izzo-Brown as a coach somewhere between hope and hype.
Two seasons removed from a national-championship game appearance and one year removed from starting the season ranked No. 1 in the country, Izzo-Brown’s WVU women’s soccer program is far from hoping a number of things fall in place in order to have success.
Hype? The Mountaineers, who begin preseason practices today in preparation for the Aug. 17 season opener, at perennial power Penn State, may have a solid foundation to build from this season, but Izzo-Brown isn’t tooting anyone’s horn, either.
“I’m right behind Lou Holtz. I always say we’re going to be terrible,” Izzo-Brown joked of the former Notre Dame football coach who continually oversold his opponents. “It’s like talking about freshmen. I don’t like talking about freshmen until they play or do something.
“I just kind of keep going. I have a high expectation and standards of excellence. I’m not so focused on the result as I am on the process. There is no ceiling to this team and I would never cap that, especially with nine seniors. We have incredible leadership for me to stand behind.”
Part of that senior leadership will come from forward Sh’Nia Gordon, who started all 73 matches of her career so far and has 16 goals and 45 points to her credit. She took four shots in the 2016 national championship match, against USC, but was never asked to be the team leader.
“She’s never had to be that (Lionel) Messi or Carli Lloyd,” Izzo-Brown said, referencing two renowned soccer stars. “Every year, we graduate somebody and I always kind of giggle and go, ‘Who is going to replace Ashley Lawrence or Kadeisha (Buchan-an) or Michaela Abam?’ Nobody can replace those players, but you can always have players step up and do their job a little bit better.”
That is where Gordon will likely begin to find herself this season, as the Mountaineers look to qualify for their 19th consecutive NCAA tournament.
“I would like for people not to know about me, so I can go out and play well,” the senior from Ocklawaha, Fla., said. “I’m just going to play the same way regardless. Just play hard. However opponents see me, it doesn’t change anything.”
What opponents will see with the Mountaineers is a talented and experienced back line of Bianca St. Georges, Vanessa Flores and Easther Mayi Kith — all seniors — as well as junior goal keeper Rylee Foster, the starter since she was a freshman.
“Us coaches never want to give up anything, but to have those three returning and Rylee is a great way to build from the back up,” Izzo-Brown said.
Gordon sees an opportunistic WVU team, one that will have a balanced scoring attack and will take advantage of corner kicks.
Izzo-Brown would like to see a little more of that opportunity come from Gordon.
“Sh’Nia has an incredible amount of expectations for her this year, because she wants to be a pro,” Izzo-Brown said. “Everything that she’s shown us so far is that she can be a lethal forward who can create a lot of havoc.
“Sh’Nia is very aware of how dynamic she is and how she can break back lines down. It’s going to be a great opportunity for her to take all of these experiences and all these goals that she’s had a lot of success with and bring them together for her senior year.”