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After 13 months, Dan Stratford finally gets to lead WVU on the pitch

(Dan Stratford preseason Zoom conference)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — 57 weeks after being hired to lead the men’s soccer program at his alma mater, Dan Stratford will finally lead the Mountaineers on the pitch as WVU opens the 2021 season at Charlotte on February 26. West Virginia’s originally-scheduled opener at Coastal Carolina has been canceled due to COVID protocols within the CCU program. With the pandemic shifting the men’s soccer season from the fall to the spring, a much-anticipated debut is near.

“We have been working towards this week and the coming months really since August,” Stratford said. “We were really pleased with what we were able to achieve during that period of time. We were uninterrupted through COVID, which we are thankful for. We went through the fall semester training and we were able to play six intrasquad games. Seeing the guys in 11 vs. 11 was very important, to have them in the kits and have them in Dick Dlesk Stadium.”

In a normal year, practice weather interruptions are infrequent in the summer months when preparing for a fall season. Just like the Mountaineer baseball team, the men’s soccer squad has found refuge in the IPF, having only been able to train outside a handful of times in this preseason.

“We have been hit with a more harsh winter than I have seen for a few years, certainly,” Stratford said. “We have been training at about 7 p.m. at the IPF (Caperton Practice Facility). Obviously, it is a fantastic facility for us to utilize and really train uninhibited.”

Stratford led the University of Charleston to Division II national championships in 2017 and 2019. While the 13-match regular season schedule that lies ahead is the immediate priority, setting the program up for success in future years is Stratford’s main focus.

“The depth of the squad, I don’t mind saying, is geared toward the fall of 2021. There’s some pieces we are excited about bringing in that we have committed for 2021. But in order for those players to have that position and to be in position to join us, we had to make some changes to where the squad is right now. So we are lighter in terms of depth.”

As of now, the Mountaineers are slated to play twelve regular season matches this spring. Ten of those will come in double-round robin play in the Mid-American Conference. 15 months removed from WVU’s last competitive match, which was against Marshall in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, Stratford needs to see his team on the pitch, win, lose or draw.

“We are at a point now where we value training and do the best we can and have certainly felt like we had a productive fall. But this group and this coaching staff is craving games right now to learn about our players. We have recruits that showed up last January, that showed up in August who still haven’t played a game for West Virginia. I haven’t coached a game for West Virginia. The results will help shape us, whether good or bad.”

Stratford led the Mountaineers to a four-year mark of 54-24-8 with three NCAA Tournament appearances and the 2006 Big East regular-season championship as a player. WVU reached the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in program history during Stratford’s senior season in 2007. An earlier-than-expected exit in the 2006 NCAA Tournament has not left his mind.

“As someone who played here, with a staff who all played here and was part of a team that was ranked No. 2 in the country when I was in my junior year and was the No. 6 seed in the national tournament, when we got upset in the second round, that still hurts me to this day. I almost feel like this is my chance at redemption.”

In his four years as a WVU player and three more as an assistant coach, Stratford has consistently followed all WVU athletic programs in his travels. In his final two seasons at Charleston, the Golden Eagle defense conceded a total of 12 goals in 46 matches.

“There are parts of my experience, being at West Virginia previously as a player and then in between continuing to be a fan of WVU athletics where I look at some of the best basketball teams we had here. The element of ‘Press Virginia’ and how well that was received from the fans, that blue-collar and hard-working mentality West Virginia is incredibly proud of, I want our teams to have that.

“I want to be able to achieve the same level of success I had at Charleston here. Having the six years there was really important for my development as a young coach. I think we can get to a point with this program where we are competing for a national championship.

Stratford cited the run by the WVU women’s team to the 2016 National Championship game and their 25-year record of success under Nikki Izzo-Brown as a standard to strive for.

“I have had more conversations with Nikki and the women’s staff and will lean on them from that perspective as to how they have done it and sustained it as long as they have. Because it is pretty incredible. That’s my ambition for this program.”

West Virginia is scheduled to host Marshall on March 24. The Herd advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 last year under Stratford’s former mentor at Charleston, Chris Grassie.

“That’s a great fixture for us now. You can only really put that down to Chris and his staff there in terms of what they have turned that into. For our perspective and from an RPI standpoint, it absolutely makes sense.”