MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Dan Stratford’s team has always believed.
All season long, Stratford hasn’t been shy about sharing his goals and expectations for his WVU men’s soccer program. He wants to build a top-10 team, wants to play and beat the best teams in the country and wants to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
That’s exactly what the Mountaineers are doing. They’re the 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and they earned a spot in the quarterfinal round for the first time since 1981 by upsetting six-seed Tulsa on the road in extra time. Now, they’re preparing to face another team that has what they desire: a star above their badge.
When WVU takes on No. 3 Georgetown, the 2019 national champion, in Saturday’s quarterfinal clash, Stratford’s players will believe they can win again and extend their historic season.
“The belief and the spirit of the group is in a fantastic place, as it should be, right now,” Stratford said. “I do believe we’ll think we can go there and we can conquer Georgetown on Saturday.”
The Mountaineers have been tactically sound all season, and according to Stratford, that’s thanks to tremendous buy-in from players in his second season as head coach.
Freshman Otto Ollikainen became West Virginia’s 14th goal scorer of the season when he redirected a corner kick into the net to secure the 1-0 victory in the round of 16. Those 14 goal scorers mark a program record for WVU, a sign of the team’s depth and ability to share the ball.
And like many of Stratford’s teams at Division II Charleston, West Virginia’s defense has been stellar this fall. Including the 1-0 win over Tulsa, WVU has recorded nine clean sheets. Fifth-year goalkeeper Steven Tekesky has continued to make his mark in the program record book, too — he’s currently tied with assistant coach Nick Noble for most goalkeeper victories in team history.
Their tactics and talent have allowed them to defeat some of the best teams in the country throughout the season, but the Hoyas are likely the best team they’ve faced.
Georgetown (18-2) spent seven weeks of the regular season as the top-ranked team in the United Soccer Coaches poll. It is undefeated at home this season and won the Big East regular season and tournament titles.
Stratford is familiar with the Hoyas from his WVU playing days from 2004-07, but Georgetown head coach Brian Wiese has completely transformed the program since taking over in 2006.
“I remember those matchups probably being a little bit easier than what we’re going to face on Saturday, quite honestly,” Stratford said.
After winning the national title two years ago, the Hoyas were eliminated by eventual national champ Marshall in last spring’s tournament.
Before facing elite foes during the regular season, Stratford repeated this line to players and reporters alike: “we want what they have.” The same applies to this matchup.
“I’m sure their objectives at the start of the season were to win it all and win an NCAA championship, and hopefully, we’re in a position now where we believe we can do that, too,” Stratford said. “The result against Tulsa and others this season continue to validate that we can compete with anyone in the country, and we certainly hope that Georgetown are no different in that regard.”
Stratford added that he’s “looking forward to the tactical battle” against Georgetown just as much as he’s looking forward to competing for the match’s prize — a spot in the College Cup.
WVU has never reached a national semifinal in men’s soccer, but that’s familiar territory for Stratford, who coached Charleston to a pair of Division II national titles in 2017 and 2019.
He and his WVU assistants — each of them former Mountaineer players — are “proud” of the history they’ve already made with this team, but the journey isn’t over yet.
There might still be more chapters to write in this storybook season.
“As I said in both of those [NCAA Tournament] games, and will say I’m sure to the guys again — just leave Georgetown, leave Washington, D.C. this Saturday with no regrets as to what our effort was, what our application was, what your intent was in terms of the execution of what we’re trying to do tactically,” Stratford said, “and there’s a very good chance we’ll leave there happy.”