WVU soccer: LeBlanc, Mountaineers to face bold schedule in 2013
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Perhaps the best part of the 2013 schedule WVU men's soccer Coach Marlon LeBlanc called "arguably" the toughest one he's put together in eight years is not the bold back-to-back matches on the road against 2012 national runner-up Georgetown and national champion Indiana.
It's that the Mountaineers nearly had a third team from last season's Final Four on the schedule. Creighton, though, had to juggle its schedule upon leaving the Missouri Valley Conference for the Big East and pushed the match with the Mountaineers back until 2014.
WVU is nevertheless left with eight non-conference matches against teams from the top 100 of the final RPI in 2012 - and the lowest rank is No. 85. Five of those are top 25 opponents and the Mountaineers will play one top five and one top 60 team in Mid-American Conference play.
The intraconference number is lower than what LeBlanc is used to after coaching six seasons in the Big East. Life in the MAC is forcing him to schedule so brazenly.
"What we lost from the Big East in terms of RPI games was not picked up by changing conferences," LeBlanc said. "College soccer's RPI is almost identical to college basketball's RPI and strength of schedule is a major component. We lost too many good teams in the Big East."
The Mountaineers were 9-6-2 in 2012 with a 4-2-1 mark in the MAC, plus a 0-1 record in the MAC tournament. They missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three seasons. The MAC losses were against Akron (No. 4) and Northern Illinois (No. 101) in the regular season and the postseason. The tie was against Western Michigan (No. 116). Akron, WVU (No. 58) and Bowling Green (No. 99) were the MAC's only top 100 teams last season.
The Big East had 13.
"I knew what was going to be the problem going in," LeBlanc said. "The real problem for us was I didn't have any time to solve it. In a normal year, that 9-6-2 record makes us an at-large NCAA Tournament team."
LeBlanc was short on time because WVU's move from the Big East to the Big 12, which doesn't sponsor men's soccer, was hung up by WVU suing the Big East and the Big East suing WVU. The time needed to reach a settlement in February hindered LeBlanc's scheduling. WVU wasn't out of the Big East, so he couldn't abandon the possibility he'd be in the Big East in 2012. Other teams were hesitant to sign non-conference contracts not knowing WVU's fate.
LeBlanc said there was a plan to play the Big East schedule as an independent, but not be eligible for the Big East tournament. He said that came undone once Temple began considering membership in all sports.
He ended up with a 17-match schedule he wasn't thrilled with. WVU later lost one match because of bad weather. College teams are allowed to play a combination of 20 exhibition and regular-season matches.
"It's a lot easier to schedule top 25 teams when all you're playing is top 25 teams," he said. "It takes some adjusting."
LeBlanc is now settled in as a member of a league that boasts Akron, the 2010 national champion and one of the country's better programs the past several years, but not many other successful programs. He's scheduling like he did in the Big East, but with a twist. Back then, he was guaranteed five or six matches with top-25 teams in conference play alone and he'd add one or two in non-conference games.
LeBlanc is now trying to reach that number with the help of non-conference matches, though he has ample opportunities. There are only seven MAC teams and six conference matches. WVU is playing exhibition matches against Ohio State and Villanova, which gives LeBlanc a dozen non-conference opportunities.
He wanted to be aggressive, which led to the unique arrangement WVU has early in the season. The team will bus to Washington, D.C., Sept. 5 to play the Hoyas a day later. That's a 4 p.m. match, which lets WVU fly to Indianapolis that night, bus to Bloomington, Ind., rest the following day and play the eight-time national champion Hoosiers at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8.
"Look at it this way," LeBlanc said. "That's an NCAA Tournament run. That's how we'll approach it with our guys. It's survive and advance. Unless you get a first-round bye, you have to play five matches to win a national championship. That stretch is a pretty good simulation for survive and advance."
WVU also plays at St. John's (No. 24 in final 2012 RPI) and at home against Penn State (No. 49) and Michigan (No. 21) in succession a week after the Georgetown-Indiana sequence. That precedes the MAC opener against Akron.
Conference realignment gave LeBlanc another problem when Florida Atlantic left for Conference USA and left the Mountaineers without a MAC match for two weeks. He filled that gap with three matches, including one at home against High Point and one at American, Nos. 76 and 85 in the final 2012 RPI, respectively.
"We're always going to try to bring good teams in here and that has to do with our players and our recruiting and what our goals are," LeBlanc said. "We have a very, very - and I'm probably going to alienate some people when I say this - fickle fan base. That's across the board in all sports.
"They want us to compete against the best and they want to see us beat them and they'll be ticked off when we lose to them. But scheduling is a science. You can't schedule just the people you can beat just to appease your fan base."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.