MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – WVU head men’s soccer coach Dan Stratford knows that Wednesday is one of the biggest games in his young coaching career, and he may not have another one with this much anticipation ever again.
No. 5 WVU will host Sun Belt and in-state rival No. 1 Marshall Wednesday night at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium in a high-stakes matchup that has been sold-out for weeks.
“We’ve been honest enough with the players to, kind of, acknowledge that this is [about] more than just the three points in conference,” Stratford said. “We’d be naive to, kind of, deny the occasion and just how unique it is.”
At the heart of one of the sport’s most bitter rivalries of recent is a strong and near-familial bond between Stratford Marshall head coach Chris Grassie.
The two coaches won three conference championships and reached two DII national championship games together at the University of Charleston from 2014-16 with Grassi as head coach and Stratford an assistant.
“I owe him a lot,” Stratford said. “I owe him a lot in terms of how I grew in that time. He delegated a lot of responsibilities for me. He allowed me to grow as a young coach, and I’m incredibly thankful for that.”
In their current jobs, the two coworkers-turned-friends have met three previous times with an evenly-split record of 1-1-1. Now that there have been a few meetings, a tradition is starting to form in the hours leading up to their annual conference-rivalry matchup.
“We’ll always get together the night before or the morning of the game just so we can say hello to one another and spend some time together,” Stratford said.
Marshall enters Wednesday’s match with a perfect 11-0 record and the largest goal differential (28) in the country. The Thundering Herd are also No. 2 in the country in points per game (8.73) and scoring offense (2.91 goals per game). Defensively, they are limiting opponents to 0.42 goals per game.
WVU’s 2023 resume isn’t too shabby, either. The Mountaineers’ 13-game stretch of unbeaten play is also the longest single-season undefeated streak in program history.
Two of the best teams in the nation riding historic hot streaks are meeting in front of a sold-out crowd on what appears to be a clear Wednesday night in Morgantown.
For the players, it will be like no other environment in which they’ve played all season, maybe even their entire lives.
“The number-one key point was our emotional intelligence and the discipline that’s required [Wednesday] night,” Stratford said. “There are moments where we’re going to need the crowd, and then there are moments where our players are going to have to suppress that or show some restraint.”
The Mountaineers are 17-13-2 against ranked opponents since 2006. Two of those wins came against No. 1 teams in the nation: UConn (2007, 2011).
Action between No. 1 Marshall and No. 5 West Virginia gets started at 7 p.m. ET at DDSS. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.