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Published:October 17th, 2007 02:27 EST
From the Ground Up: The Story of Nikki Izzo-Brown and the West Virginia University Women's Soccer Program

From the Ground Up: The Story of Nikki Izzo-Brown and the West Virginia University Women's Soccer Program

By Brad Davis

Nikki Izzo-Brown is a very energetic head coach. Just sit and talk with her for a few minutes and you can hear the drive in her voice. At Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium, you can hear her intensity all the way from the press box.

That intensity rubs off on her players and it makes them winners, year in and year out.

Few at West Virginia University realize just how far its women`s soccer program has come in only its 13th years of existence. Tell any student the team is a national title contender every year, and nine times out of ten the response is, really? "

Overshadowed by the recent success of the football, men`s basketball and, most recently, the men`s soccer teams, Izzo-Brown has quietly developed the program into a perennial powerhouse among the nation`s highest ranked teams.

While the current success is remarkable, the story of the program`s birth and what it`s grown into is flat out amazing.

It all started back in 1995, when the WVU athletic department contacted the young division II coach about taking over a brand new program that would literally have to be built from scratch.

She was reluctant to even think about it.

I was coaching at West Virginia Wesleyan and I had a fantastic team there, so I was really contemplating even considering the job, " she recalls. When you take pride in a program it gets really hard to leave or think that you`re going to go somewhere else.

For Izzo-Brown, the decision to leave what she felt was a national caliber team at Wesleyan wasn`t an easy one, and with good reason. An assistant in her first year there, she was named head coach in 1994 and led the Bobcats to an impressive 13-5-0 record. After some debate, she decided to visit Morgantown.

When I came up here and visited and looked at the opportunities, I realized that I must have had a high fever and was a little bit crazy, " she says. I just saw the opportunities here being in the Big East Conference and what could happen. "

She decided to accept the challenge, and Athletic Director Ed Pastilong named Izzo-Brown head coach of its brand new women`s soccer program on August 3.

It may have been one of the greatest hires ever made by the WVU athletic department.

Indeed everything would need to be built from the ground up. It would be a full year before the program could even put players on the field, and because there was no field, they would have to share the astroturf with the football team. For the rest of 1995 and much of 1996, the program was run largely on improvisation, I didn`t have an office and I shared with the tennis coach, " recalls Izzo-Brown. We didn`t have a practice facility, we didn`t have a game facility and we didn`t have a locker room. We had nothing. "

And because there was no locker room, the team would change in the bathroom.

We explained to her that this was going to be a tour that both of us would have to take together, " remembers Athletic Director Ed Pastilong. We didn`t want to hire her and say "go coach the team` because we were starting a new program and together we had to build it. "

Despite having no soccer facilities in place, the Mountaineer women stunned the country when they finished their first season 10-7-2 with a nearly all freshman team, finishing fifth in the Big East (4-4-1) after they were picked to finish dead last in the preseason coaches` poll.
Their success out of the gate told West Virginia director of athletics Pastilong they had found a championship caliber coach.

Quite frankly I was surprised that a brand new team in its first year would win 10 contests, " says Pastilong. That was quite impressive. "
A year later the team finally had its own field next door to the Coliseum, though it had no bleachers and it was mowed and cared for by regular maintenance crews. Regardless, a home field was the catalyst for progress.

For each of the next two seasons Izzo-Brown led her teams to matching 11-6-2 finishes, and in 1999 they were dogged by injuries and had their only .500 season, finishing 9-9-1. It was that frustrating season that may have pushed WVU`s program to the next level.

With a vengeance, the Mountaineers won 15 games in 2000 (15-6-0), setting a school record for wins and making the program`s first NCAA Tournament appearance. Coach Izzo-Brown was named NSCAA/Adidas Mid-Atlantic regional coach of the year for the first time and four players from that team (Katie Barnes, Lisa Stoia, Rachel Kruze and Chrissie Abbott) earned post-season All-Big East honors.

It was right where Izzo-Brown expected her team to be by then. My goal was, in four years, I wanted to get on the national level and the national scale because my freshmen then were seniors, " she says.

That particular year, it was clear that we could win a conference and a national championship, " says Pastilong.

He was right. The program had turned a corner and continued to pile up wins. Since that 2000 season, the Mountaineers haven`t missed an NCAA tournament.

The next year they won another 15 games and finished second (4-1-1) in the Big East Mid-Atlantic division. In 2002 they finished 1st (5-0-1) and set another school record with 18 wins, following it up with 17 wins in 2003 and another second place finish.

In 2004, renovations to the soccer stadium were completed thanks to a donation from Dick Dlesk, and the Mountaineers finally had a beautiful home field fit for a contender. A practice field was installed nearby as well, and with the upgraded facilities in place, the wins kept coming.

From that season up to the end of the 2006 campaign, her teams were a combined 41-16-6, with another first place finish last year.

Throughout her career, Izzo-Brown`s teams have been amazingly consistent. Since August 2004 the Mountaineers have been ranked within the top 25, climbing as high as 6th midway through last season.

Even more amazing, she`s never had a single losing season, her career win percentage is over .680 and early into 2007 she tallied her 150th win. The milestone is a testament to how far the program has come.

It`s remarkable to win the number of contests she`s won that fast, " says Pastilong. To add to the difficulty of it, every college has women`s soccer, and to be in the top 20, top 10 year in and year out is extraordinary. "

Izzo-Brown doesn`t keep up with her career statistics herself. Ask her what it felt like to beat #15 Penn State for her 150th win and she`ll tell you about cooking dinner and changing diapers later that night. She puts her family first and is quick to credit those around her for the program`s success.

I`m always a mother first, and I`m blessed with a wonderful family that supports me, " she says, [Winning 150] was great, but it wasn`t just about me, it was about so many other people. "

A mother of two little girls, Izzo-Brown will tell you that raising a program from it`s infancy into a national title contender has been much like raising a third child. She pushes her players hard and expects the best from them at all times, instilling within them the belief that hard work always pays off. At the same time, her players are family to her as well.

I love them dearly. One thing about coaching is that it`s not a job, it`s a way of life, " she says. It`s a phone call late at night or when you`re sitting down at dinner. It`s not like when you leave work it`s done. "

Any veteran player on Izzo-Brown`s squad can attest to her well-documented, 110% work ethic.

There`s never an easy day. It`s an intense atmosphere and she always keeps our team competitive, " says senior forward Kim Bonilla. We have to work hard, even if it`s a little passing drill, you run to that ball, you make an angle for support. "

She`s always pushing everyone to get better, " senior forward/midfielder Ashley Banks says. We`re a top 25 program here, and she pushes us as hard as we need to be at that next level. "

Senior defender Natalie Cocchi has been in the program for five years and knows as well as anyone what makes Izzo-Brown`s teams so good year in and year out.

In the spring, I would definitely say we`re one of the hardest working teams in the country, " she says. We do a lot of the little things very well. That`s something she instills in us, to always do the little things right and, no matter what, work as hard as you possibly can. "

Coming into its 12th season, Izzo-Brown`s program-- and it`s certainly fair to call it her program-- has accomplished so much in its young history. From sharing the astroturf of Mountaineer Field to playing in the shadow of the Coliseum, the story of where the program has come from and where it`s going could be heading toward epic status.

What`s more? She plans to be in Morgantown for a long time. She loves West Virginia, and with a flourishing family and soccer program, she has every intention of staying for the long run, aiming to bring multiple Big East and national championships to West Virginia University.

The ride won`t be slowing down anytime soon, and if you take a trip to Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium to watch a game, it`s hard not to believe it. Izzo-Brown`s teams are loaded with great skill players at key positions. They move the ball well, run hard, aren`t afraid to play a physical game when situations call for it and routinely pound teams who don`t show up prepared for them.

Today, after 13 years, the rapid achievements of Coach Nikki Izzo-Brown and the West Virginia women`s soccer program place high on the list of all-time successes in WVU sports.

Pastilong agrees.

For a young lady to walk onto our campus and guide the program to where it is today is one of the most outstanding accomplishments that`s occurred in our athletic department in our history, " he says.