MORGANTOWN — The words that come out of West Virginia women’s soccer coach Nikki Izzo-Brown’s mouth tell you all you need to know about her feelings as her team carries a big target on its back entering the 2014 season.
“I have embraced my motto that ‘Pressure is a privilege,’” she said in the midst of an interview session prior to today’s 7:30 p.m. opener against host Penn State in the Penn State Invitational. “There are things you earn and this program has earned that privilege. It’s something we need to protect and make sure we don’t turn it into a negative.”
Izzo-Brown grew the program from the ground up, starting from scratch and pushing it toward heights it has now reached, a team ranked No. 10 in the nation entering the season, defending Big 12 regular-season and tournament champion and an annual participant in NCAA postseason play.
“Everyone gets excited to play No. 1, but you have to remember that everyone gets excited to play West Virginia, depending upon where we’re at. You want to play both those cards,” she said. “This program has been built on championships and being in the Top 25, so still being asked these questions, that’s important to me … but more important at the end of the year.”
Always the goal has been to reach for the stars, with an NCAA title as the ultimate achievement.
“Every day, I wanted to build something special. Every day the goal was to win the national championship and to establish a program that could win championships year in and year out,” Izzo-Brown said.
“I have every day kept in mind the end result and worked hard to get better.
“Every year it’s been change and it’s been different but the goals have remained the same.”
This year is no different, but to do so will not be easy for Penn State is ranked 24th in the country and picked to win the Big Ten, a difficult opponent with great familiarity with the WVU program. It’s a tough opener.
“(Penn State coach) Erica (Walsh) and I both expect a battle on Friday. It’s something we built throughout the years and we both respect each other,” Izzo-Brown said.
And this is just the season opener. Following a second game in the Invitational, WVU returns home to begin its 10th year at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium on Aug. 29 against Duke, another nationally ranked team.
Is this better than easing into a new season?
“You see real quickly what you need to work on and the level of play will push each other’s growth. So, why not? Why not have two of the top teams in the country play each other right from the get go?”
In some ways, WVU’s preparation for the season was not what Izzo-Brown would have liked as three of her top players — Kadeisha Buchanan, last year’s Big 12 Rookie and Defender of the year; Amandine Pierre-Louis and Ashley Lawrence — were selected to play World Cup for the Canadian National team, an honor yet a disruption to practice.
Not that this bothers the coach.
“Recruiting them or any national team kid, their ultimate goal is to play for their national team. I can’t lie, I was really rooting for Canada to keep winning, but there was a bit of excitement at my end when they lost.”
Had Canada made a World Cup run, they could have missed the season’s first two games at WVU.
“It’s been an interesting situation I’ve never been here before,” Izzo-Brown said. “Obviously, their recovery is important as is integrating them back into their West Virginia family. We’re looking into it, checking how are you feeling, what can we do to make sure you’re all right.”
And just because they missed that time with the team doesn’t mean Izzo-Brown is going to ease them in.
“The best 11 are going to play. If the best 11 includes three Canadians, then that’s the direction we are going to go,” Izzo-Brown said.
Three players who came back strong other than the Canadians were Cari Price, Maggie Bedillion and Kailey Utley.
“Utley really come back ready and set the tone for herself. That has really helped her play. She has definitely elevated her game,” Izzo-Brown said. “Another player who has impacted from the get go is Cari Price and Maggie Bedillion has done her part of coming back better.”
The Mountaineers return five of six All-Big 12 performers from last season including Buchanan, Lawrence and Kate Schwindel, all first team picks, along with Amanda Hill from the second team and Carly Black from the Newcomer tea.
The goaltenders spot was won in a three-way battle by Hannah Steadman, a junior transfer from Tennessee.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bherztel