West Virginia head coach Marlon LeBlanc has exalted his Mountaineers team at times this season after they have tackled some of college soccer’s tallest peaks. Now he has to raise them from a deep valley before Saturday’s Mid-American Conference game at Bowling Green in northwestern Ohio.
Last Saturday’s 1-0 reverse at Northern Illinois left WVU in a four-way tie for second place behind conference leaders Akron going into the concluding weekend’s games. Another slip could see West Virginia miss out on the four-team MAC Tournament as well as an NCAA Championship berth – a situation that seemed inconceivable when the Mountaineers bullied and harassed No. 2 ranked Akron for long spells on Oct. 20 before ultimately being tamed 2-1.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams with this group of seniors that we’d have a letdown after playing such a great game against Akron,” LeBlanc told TopDrawerSoccer.com in a telephone interview. “I certainly don’t prepare my teams that way.
“We have to take responsibility for not being mentally checked in for what was an important game for us.”
Qualification for the MAC Tournament should still be attainable for West Virginia. Western Michigan travels to Akron Saturday, and a seventh conference win in seven games for Caleb Porter’s side would ensure WVU and Bowling Green’s qualification with a tie. Reaching the NCAA Championship won’t be quite as straight forward for the Mountaineers, according to LeBlanc.
“We need to win the conference tournament,” the seventh-year head coach said. “Our NCAA tournament has started now. Our approach is basically survive and advance. We know we have to win on Saturday to guarantee where we stay, and then we need to win again and win again to get into the tournament.”
LeBlanc’s side has gone 0-4-2 away from Morgantown this season. It’s not so much the rigors of long coach journeys or the absence of home comforts that has afflicted his team, he said. It’s an inability to find the same character and focus to perform in front of 300 spectators in DeKalb, Ill. as his team finds before 3,000 fans at the stadiums of top-ranked opponents.
“We can be the best team in America on any given day and we can be pretty bad at times too,” LeBlanc said. “Consistency is something I’ve harped on about with the group all season long.”
Hurricane Sandy blew West Virginia’s preparations slightly off course this week. Tuesday’s non-conference game with Long Island, N.Y.-based Stony Brook fell victim to the storm and snow in Morgantown has forced the team to train at WVU’s indoor football facility.
One major bright spot is the potential return of right-back Nick Raskasky. A suspected broken leg suffered in the opening minutes of the Akron defeat turned out to be nothing more serious than a severe bone contusion. The Seattle Sounders Academy product has been able to maintain his fitness by using specialized cardiovascular training equipment designed to keep the weight off an injured athlete’s legs.
“We’re hopeful we can get him back within the next four or five days,” LeBlanc said. “The question is whether or not he’ll be able to respond to full training.”
Ian Thomson is a freelance soccer reporter and founder of The Soccer Observer Web site. Follow him on Twitter at @SoccerObserver.