MORGANTOWN — It is hard to imagine that Nikki Izzo-Brown calls herself “a dinosaur” now but yes, that determined young lady who came out of Rochester to coach at West Virginia Wesleyan for two years before taking over the newborn West Virginia University women’s soccer program, is pushing a quarter of a century as the only coach WVU has ever had.
But just when she thought she’d seen it all, just as she was rebuilding a program that had reached No. 1 and played in an NCAA Final, they threw this COVID-19 pandemic at her and she now she finds herself doing things she never imagined she’d be doing and worrying about things she’d never worried about before.
All of a sudden she’s proficient in ZOOM and FaceTime communications while trying to figure out how to get through the maze of problems that the pandemic has littered in her path.
It started this spring when the Mountaineers season was suspended.
“We were just closing shop to go into spring break,” she said. “Then, that following week, we were going to go down and play the Carolina Courage, the world champions in NWSL professional soccer.
We were in our spring season, which is a high level of our development. I haven’t seen the girls live, to grab them, now 60-some odd days.”
And to miss the spring season is more than you may think it is.
“Not that I have favorite parts of our season, but I just love developing my players. When you are in the fall season it’s about developing our system and about dealing with opposing teams’ system of play,” she said.
“Our spring season, though, is a lot about our team concept and individual concepts. I really miss maximizing my athletes’ potential and developing them. That’s what really motivates me as a coach to have no regrets when they graduate.”
Missing spring and maybe missing summer are major hurdles and there’s no telling yet when they will finally be able to regroup and play again.
Izzo-Brown knows she’s venturing into the unknown and has no control over it.
“Like all of us, we know how important football is … and not my football. I think we all understand and respect what football does for us,” she said. “What I feel in this pandemic is watching what they are going to do in football, then after that we will kind of fall in line and see where we fall with women’s soccer.
“I know all our associations and women’s soccer chairs are making sure that we’re thinking collectively and being safe and healthy first, but once football goes off we’re going to have a season … but what that season looks like, we’re going to have to wait and see.”
She says that once they get the word she’ll need at least two weeks to get ready, but she’s unsure what she will have or what is optimum.
“That’s been a huge concern of mine because of missing spring season. I’m concerned about not being in the weight room where we develop the athletes physically. We missed all of that and I’m concerned about injury prevention,” she said.
“Now we move into the summer months and they can’t play right now. Some of the players don’t have any access to weights or anything like that. Then you kind of move to last week and the German professional league was the first one in soccer to kick off and they had so many injuries.”
And that has been her concern.
“We want to play. I know our kids, they’ll give you ‘We can train for two days and we can go’,” Izzo-Brown said. “I do think we have to look at that and it’s something we haven’t had to look at before. Normally, our preseason is about two weeks for the preseason. I hope it’s not less than two weeks and if it’s a little bit more than two weeks I’m more than happy.
“I don’t think the NCAA would allow us to do anything less than two weeks for our preseason. I don’t want to be greedy, because I want a season, but am very concerned about the health of the athletes and we have to be mindful of that.
“I don’t want a lot of injuries and I think the German league showed we have to be careful when we get back into it.”
The problem is she has players scattered around the world and all will come back with different needs.
“We’re trying to think about all aspects of that. We’re doing everything we can to motivate the athletes and to make sure they understand when it’s go time it’s go time. The self-motivation part of that is huge,” she said.
“Even though we have volunteer workouts in the summer months, a lot of the athletes take it pretty serious. They come back to campus and work seriously with our strength and conditioning coach.”
Everything, Izzo-Brown believes, will have to be individualized to a certain extent.
“We’ve talked about that as a staff. We normally have this cookie cutter approach. We are going to have embrace and be honest where we are with every athlete. Yeah, some of it is on them, but some of it is on us,” she said.
“Some of our kids up north can’t even get out because it’s too cold and they can’t do cardio training unless they have a treadmill. We’re going to work hand in hand and it’s going to be a team effort. We’re working closely with the NCAA to see what we can do to monitor them.”
That has forced her to get into the technology that is now necessary to do such monitoring.
“As old as I am, and I am a dinosaur, I’ve been Facetiming recruits and I love it. That’s been important to me because these kids are text, text, text, text, text and I just want to see them. Now the NCAA has allowed us to do virtual tours. We can even do Zooms with tactics or with team stuff now, so it’s been really interesting how that has evolved.”
— Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel