Canadian-led roster has West Virginia Mountaineers in NCAA women's College Cup
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Nikki Izzo-Brown is the only women's soccer coach West Virginia has ever hired. After 21 seasons, she's guiding the Mountaineers to the women's College Cup for the first time.
Led by a group of Canadians, including a pair of Olympians and a freshman goalkeeper with a penchant for shutouts, West Virginia (22-1-2) takes a 16-game unbeaten streak into Friday's semifinals against North Carolina (17-3-4) in San Jose, California. Southern Cal (17-4-2) meets Georgetown (20-2-3) in the other semifinal.
Izzo-Brown was hired for West Virginia's varsity debut in 1996 and has taken the Mountaineers to the NCAA tournament in 17 straight seasons. The school's best previous showing was making it twice to the quarter-finals, including last season.
West Virginia was ranked No. 1 by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America over the final five weeks of the regular season.
"Until we're No. 1 at the end of the year do I even reflect on the numbers," Izzo-Brown said.
So far, they've been strong.
The Mountaineers have 17 shutouts and allowed just nine goals all season, including two in one game.
Freshman goalkeeper Rylee Foster of Cambridge, Ont., just back from the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup where she competed for Canada in Papau, New Guinea, earned a 1-0 win over Duke in the quarter-finals last week to improve to 13-1-1.
Foster is among seven Canadians on West Virginia's roster.
That includes senior defender Kadeisha Buchanan and midfielder Ashley Lawrence both from Brampton, Ont. The duo who first became teammates at age 9 earned bronze medals at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Buchanan is a four-time Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
"Canada makes sense," Izzo-Brown said. "It's five-and-a-half hours away. There's great soccer, and I had a friend up there that I knew was developing the kids the right way. Once you get one and they're extremely happy, it's pretty incredible how many more you get and how word travels fast. So I've been very fortunate that the kids I've got from Canada just absolutely love West Virginia and everything about it."
The presence of Buchanan and Lawrence prompted Foster to come, too, although it took some coaxing from her father. She initially wanted to play for her home country's national team.
"Finally my dad was like, 'you're pushing off a powerhouse team, you can't do this," Foster said. "I think you should call the coach.'"
Her first phone conversation with Izzo-Brown put any hesitation to rest.
Foster and Buchanan said Izzo-Brown is like a second mother to them. But her tenacity over the years to elevate the program is what stands out. The school has overhauled its soccer complex, replaced the grass field and built a separate women's soccer training field and practice facility.
"You got to understand one thing, as a coach you always want more," Izzo-Brown said. "So, I'm always fighting for more, if Florida State has something or UCLA has something. That's just been something that probably every coach will tell you. They want to have better facilities. They want to have better opportunities. Nothing was ever handed to me. So if I'm not fundraising, you know, I'm fighting."
Associated Press freelancer Matthew Thornsbury in Morgantown, W.Va., contributed to this report.