It has been two seasons since West Virginia women’s soccer claimed the Big 12 Conference crown — and in 2021, they’re eyeing a return to the throne.
Of course, last season was a bit of a fluke. On top of the curveballs thrown at every team across college athletics throughout the 2020-21 season, the Big 12 did not hold its annual tournament for women’s soccer. Instead, they crowned TCU the champions with an 8-0-1 conference record. West Virginia was right behind at 7-2, setting up an eventual 5-seed and first round exit in the spring’s NCAA Tournament.
In 2021, though, the excuses are gone. Nikki Izzo-Brown is back in her groove, and her sights are set on bringing some hardware back to Morgantown.
“I’m super excited that this is semi-normal, back to it [in the] preseason,” she said. “It’s great to have the group back and ready to grind and win championships.”
Over the last couple of years, Izzo-Brown has been vocal about her squad’s youth. In the first game of 2019, half of WVU’s players (including seven starters) were underclassmen. All of those contributors were back for 2020, adding just one new starter to the rotation at the goalkeeper spot.
Stefany Ferrer-vanGinkel is the biggest loss from 2020-21, but she is a heavy one. The attacking midfielder, who recently signed with UANL Tigres of Mexico’s Liga MX Feminil, led the team with 15 points, including six goals and three assists. WVU also lost striker Enzi Broussard, who opted to transfer to Washington State after her two-goal, two-assist sophomore season.
Izzo-Brown’s returning squad starts at the back with strong defensive foundation featuring two preseason All-Big 12 selections in defender Jordan Brewster and goalkeeper Kayza Massey. Brewster has been a regular on these lists — this is her third straight appearance on the preseason list, adding to her resume with three All-Big 12 team nods, a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honor and an All-America selection in 2020-21. Massey, however, makes her first appearance on the list after her inaugural year as a starter.
Izzo-Brown is quick to remind, though, that the preseason list doesn’t mean much once that ball is in play.
“I told both of them that they better be on those at the end of the year, that’s the most important,” she said. “I think it shows confidence that other coaches voted for them, and I know I’m their biggest fans, so to me it’s exciting that they get the nod from other coaches…but I think both of them bring that experience back, because both of them have those years under their belt of understanding.”
WVU boasts goalkeeper depth as backup keeper Maddie Murphy earned four starts out of WVU’s fourteen games. Together, the duo combined for three clean sheets — two for Massey, one for Murphy.
Brewster, a center back, leads a strong returning backline. Her 1,300 minutes in the season were tops for WVU last season — but fellow CB Gabby Robinson was right behind with 1,294 as the duo started all 14 games.
They are flanked with strong play at the outside back positions, from which Izzo-Brown has gotten plenty of scoring as well over the years. Julianne Vallerand played in all 14 matches and added a trio of goals, while Nicole Payne made 12 appearances with a goal to her name last season.
There is only one fullback that started all 14 games last season, however, and that is Mackenzie Aunkst. Izzo-Brown is really high on the redshirt junior, who is now a regular contributor after growing her role in the program over the course of four years.
“You can kind of see how Kenzie has really developed to be that next-level player,” Izzo-Brown said. “Gabby Robinson, same thing, Julie Lynch. They’re really just kind of developing, and as they develop, their impact and the little things they do make the big things happen, and I think they’ve really done that.”
England product Isabella Sibley headlines the midfield trio for West Virginia after notching a trio of both goals and assists last season, which will consist of several different names. Juliana Lynch and Lilly McCarthy added plenty of minutes, while the addition of Grace Smith in the spring bolstered the unit’s play as well. Aaliyah Scott could also see an increased role after her key spot on the bench in 2020-21.
There is a plethora of experience for WVU in its attackers between Lauren Segalla and Alina Stahl, the latter of whom tied Ferrer-vanGinkel with a team-high six goals last season. Segalla enters her fifth season in the program, having played 64 games in the Old Gold and Blue, and is hoping to get her point total up after notching nine (two goals, five assists) in 2020-21.
The Mountaineers kick their 2021 season off on Aug. 19 against Buffalo.