WVU’s Crowder Eyes Cary Homecoming

Written by Ian Thomson

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s Jess Crowder has an extra incentive to help the Mountaineers reach next month’s NCAA Women’s College Cup tournament at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.

Three years have passed since the junior defender watched Notre Dame’s Melissa Henderson inspire the Fighting Irish to a 1-0 win over undefeated Stanford in the last final played at WakeMed. Cary native Crowder now finds herself three games away from stepping out onto her hometown field that she often imagined playing on in similar circumstances.

Reaching the Final Four will be a tough task for a West Virginia team hampered by injuries and facing No. 4-ranked Virginia Tech in Blacksburg Friday. The Hokies ended Virginia’s 20-game winning streak during the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament two weeks ago with seven players that ousted WVU from the NCAA tournament when the teams met in 2011.

WVU's Jess Crowder (Photo: Ian Thomson)
WVU’s Jess Crowder (Photo: Ian Thomson)

“It was a very different pace to what we had been used to in the Big East,” recalled Crowder of Virginia Tech’s 1-0 win in Morgantown. “Now we’ve gained more ground in that area.

“We’ve played Duke and North Carolina from the ACC this year, so that’s served us well.”

The Mountaineers have racked up the hardware since switching to the Big 12 Conference last year. Two regular-season titles and this month’s tournament trophy have been added to the display cabinet at the team’s Dreamswork Field training facility.

Last Saturday’s penalty shootout win over Rutgers was another step in the development of a young WVU side that has flourished without seniors Caroline Szwed and Kara Blosser, junior Ali Connelly and freshman Bryce Banuelos. The injury jinx worsened last month with the loss of junior forward Kate Schwindel, a two-time All-Big 12 First Team pick and the conference’s third-highest scorer this year.

A lack of options has forced West Virginia head coach Nikki Izzo-Brown to trust a small pool of players. Crowder, freshmen Kadeisha Buchanan and Carly Black, sophomore Leah Emaus and senior goalkeeper Sara Keane have been ever-present in a defense that has recorded four consecutive shutouts in knockout tournament play.

“Our chemistry has grown throughout the season because it’s just been the four of us back there,” Crowder told The Soccer Observer.

“We know we don’t necessarily have those subs coming in to regenerate our energy on the field. We have to be responsible, be smart, and do what we need to do in our positions to make the team successful.”

Notre Dame’s 2010 triumph acts as a reminder that anything can happen in a knockout competition. The Mountaineers lifted the Big East Conference championship that year and Marquette compiled the best regular-season record, but Randy Waldrum’s Fighting Irish showed their class with road wins at two-time defending champions North Carolina and Oklahoma State to reach the NCAA’s Final Four at WakeMed.

“That was right before I came here,” Crowder said. “I thought ‘This is where I could be with the West Virginia team.’

“To be on that field in those circumstances would be amazing.”

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