She looked away from the action on the field and down at the grass below. The cheers from the stands across the way drowned out any calm throughout Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium. An ice-cold cooler of water poured onto her head by sophomore forward Emily Dillon and senior forward Morgan Betscher in celebration of what the Mountaineers had just accomplished.
In 16 years as the only coach in the history of WVU women’s soccer, Izzo-Brown has won three Big East Conference tournament titles – all of them coming in the last five years. While the Mountaineers were deemed champions once again on Sunday, Izzo-Brown finds time every day to be a mother to her three young daughters and “Aunt Nikki” to her players.
As her team sprinted toward the middle of the field, Izzo-Brown stood back up, went to midfield and found senior Erica Henderson – the team’s most-veteran leader. The two embraced on the midfield stripe.
Later, she hugged a few more players and headed toward the crowd to salute and thank in one distinct and meaningful gesture. The fourth-largest crowd to ever see a WVU women’s soccer game did the same back to her.
The smile never left her face as “We are the champions” blared through the stadium speakers.
She’s getting used to those celebrations, though they never get old.
“I just needed a minute to be excited about that and collect myself,” she said. “It kind of overwhelms you when all of your hard work is rewarded for the athlete, and they get to experience a championship. Everybody did it. We did it as a family.”
Twenty-six-and-a-half hours later, the mood changed.
Izzo-Brown stood in the back of the Jerry West Room of the WVU Coliseum on Monday with a small notepad and pen. As West Virginia’s road to the College Cup became clear in the first few minutes of the NCAA tournament selection show, she scribbled on her pad and mumbled quietly to herself.
Her team, elated just minutes ago, sat nearly quiet.
“Wow,” one player said.
“I’m so mad,” another added shortly after.
WVU would face Virginia Tech in six days.
“We thought we were going to get a seed, and we weren’t extremely happy. That’s how it goes sometimes,” said senior defender Meghan Lewis. “We’ll just use it as motivation. We are so excited to play on Saturday. We have a lot to prove.”
It was obvious the Mountaineers were stunned they weren’t one of the top 16-seeded teams in the NCAA tournament and furious to face such a solid opponent in the first round. After all, WVU just lifted the Big East tournament trophy the previous day.
Izzo-Brown continued to write on her notepad. Then, she looked up and saw her team’s stunned reaction.
“Woo hoo!” she yelled in obvious frustration.
It would be a tough road ahead starting with Saturday’s first-round match against the Hokies at 6 p.m. in Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium.
Players continued to mumble words of disgust at the draw the Mountaineers were handed, as WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck walked over to Izzo-Brown and put his right arm around her.
“You’ll have challenges along the way, but you’ll fight through them,” Luck calmly told her. She nodded back and smiled.
Moments later, Izzo-Brown began to whisper into players’ ears while the remainder of the bracket was announced.
After she expressed her disappointment with the NCAA selection committee to the handful of media in the room, she gathered her team together.
Izzo-Brown’s players gazed intently at their coach as she laid out what was ahead of them this week. It was clear how important those words were to say and how much they meant to the group. There’s a reason why the team calls her “Aunt Nikki” and believes in the culture of family she’s used to build WVU’s program.
“When you have an expectation, there’s always disappointment,” she said. “When you’ve won a Big East title, there’s a bit of an expectation to be seeded. But, you know what? In life, nothing’s guaranteed.”
Indeed it’s not, and the players realized that when the bracket was announced.
Then again, there were no guarantees the program would turn into a powerhouse either when Izzo-Brown was hired to create the program from the ground up in 1996.
“It’s like my fourth child. I love this place. I love everything about it. I want to win, and I want to put us in the best position to do that,” she said. “There are other places as a coach that you could go, but I know that this a special place. I created this program with some very important people, and when you start a program, it’s hard to leave.”
How did she take a program that started in a first-aid closet that doubled as an office in the WVU Coliseum to one that has made 12 straight NCAA tournaments?
Devotion. Hard work. Intensity. Passion.
You name it, Izzo-Brown’s players says she has it.
“I always describe her as a great motivator, and she’s just so passionate about what she does. It really spreads throughout the team,” said senior midfielder Chelsey Corroto. “That’s partly why we’ve been so successful this year. She has so much faith in us.”
The preparation for Saturday’s match started when Izzo-Brown returned home from the Coliseum Monday night. She cut up Virginia Tech tape that night. Tuesday morning came quickly – 8:10 a.m. to be exact – after she dropped her daughters off at school.
She walked into her office building next to the Coliseum with a half-eaten bowl of oatmeal in one hand and an overflowing purse in the other. She struggled to find her office keys, pulled them out and entered the office.
It’s filled with personality. The team’s Big East tournament trophy sat on a table cluttered with hundreds of papers shoved in manila folders and a laptop. Many other pieces of memorabilia like a photo and autograph with former Brazilian soccer superstar Pele were scattered throughout the history-laden room.
Carpet patches and color swatches for the new women’s soccer practice facility at DreamsWork Field – a $2.1 million facility that Izzo-Brown raised most of the money for – covered one cushion of a sofa.
On the floor in front of her desk rested a pair of black and white soccer cleats fit for one of her three daughters, Samantha, Gracie and Gabriella. A stuffed toy Mountaineer mascot nestled right beside them. On her desk laid a picture of a soccer ball drawn in yellow highlighter by one of her daughters who had been in the office the day before.
“My office is a mess,” she admitted. “But, I know exactly where everything is.”
Izzo-Brown starts almost every morning watching film while on the treadmill in the wrestling facility down a flight of stairs from her office. On Tuesday, she inserted a DVD from one of Virginia Tech’s home games and jumped on the treadmill.
The room was quiet; only the pounding of feet and motor of treadmill echoed throughout the wrestling room.
“No. 13’s left footed,” she said, noting key tendencies from the Hokies.
After that run, she headed back to her office and continued on a normal routine. It happens that way nearly everyday.
She never stops.
“She’s not into the accolades or things like that. It’s all about the team,” said Nikki Goodenow, a former assistant coach and player under Izzo-Brown. “That’s what’s important to her – the girls realizing their goals and having no regrets. That’s what helps her to be motivated. She hasn’t won a national championship, and she’s not stopping until she does.”
If she had, she’d never be the coach, mentor or mother she is today. She wouldn’t have turned the WVU women’s soccer program into one of the nation’s best, either.
By Tony Dobies
CONTACT: University Relations-News
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