This season has marked a revival — and a remodeling — of the Virginia Tech men’s soccer program.
Thanks in large part to some international players, the Hokies reached the NCAA semifinals in 2007. But that campaign was followed by eight straight losing seasons.
Tech’s years of irrelevancy are over. The 13-4-4 Hokies — this time boasting more of a “Made in Virginia” flavor — have made a surprising run to Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinals.
“It’s been a long, long road and a lot of hard work, a lot of difficult things to get through, but … it makes it that much more rewarding,” Hokies coach Mike Brizendine said.
This team was built differently than the 2007 squad.
Six standouts on the 2007 team were international players. Only two Hokies from the commonwealth saw action in the 2007 final four.
But nine of the 16 Hokies who played in last weekend’s Sweet 16 victory at Indiana were from Virginia high schools. Only three were from other nations, including two who transferred to Tech from other U.S. colleges.
“A very important thing for us is the state of Virginia being very good [for recruiting of late],” Brizendine said. “Look how well we’ve done with our Virginia kids. Our Virginia kids are having as much of an impact as our internationals.”
Rise and fall
Brizendine’s predecessor and ex-boss was Oliver Weiss, a native of Germany who used international recruiting to make Tech a power.
While no one on this year’s Tech squad made the All-ACC first team, the 2007 Hokies boasted first-team All-American forward Patrick Nyarko from Ghana. He now starts for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United.
Nyarko led the Hokies to three straight NCAA tournament berths, capped by the 2007 run to the final four.
But the following year, Tech had to replace Nyarko and seven other starters. The Hokies won just five games in 2008.
Weiss resigned in June 2009. Thirteen days after his resignation, Tech reported 11 recruiting violations to the NCAA. The violations involved NCAA and Tech fees that Weiss paid on behalf of eight international recruits — a German member of the 2007 team and seven players Weiss recruited for the 2008 squad.
Tech told the NCAA it would stop recruiting international men’s soccer players from the 2009-10 school year through the 2011-12 school year.
To replace Weiss, then-athletic director Jim Weaver turned to Weiss’ top assistant. Brizendine, a McLean native and James Madison University graduate, had been a head coach at ODAC member Bridgewater before joining Weiss’ staff in 2004.
The ban on international recruits made Brizendine’s new job a challenge.
“Building back from those penalties, it was really difficult,” Brizendine said.
“[The ACC] is not easy on an even playing field,” said North Carolina coach Carlos Somoano, who led UNC to the 2011 NCAA title. “With even the slightest disadvantage, it’s brutally hard.”
Even once Brizendine was able to add international players again, the losing continued.
Whit Babcock replaced Weaver as athletic director in 2014. Tech went 7-8-2 overall that fall — three more wins than the previous year.
Babcock gave Brizendine a new, two-year contract for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
“Look how blessed, fortunate I am that he’s had some patience with me,” Brizendine said.
Brizendine was disappointed last fall when the Hokies went 5-9-3 overall and 0-5-3 in the ACC. But he expected this year would be better.
“The game plan was for this year to be the year that we hit,” Brizendine said. “We were building up to this with the kids that we [already] had, the kids that we knew that were coming in.
“It exceeded anything I thought, an Elite Eight situation, but I thought this team could be in the mix for the NCAA tournament.”
The 2016 freshman class includes Nico Quashie, a Lake Braddock graduate who scored the lone goal in Tech’s 1-0 first-round win over East Tennessee State and who tallied the winning goal in the 88th minute of Tech’s 3-2 second-round win at No. 10 overall seed Charlotte; Brendan Moyers, an Albemarle graduate who scored the first goal in Tech’s 2-1 overtime win at No. 7 overall seed Indiana last weekend; West Potomac graduate Daniel Damiani, who came off the bench last weekend; and Riverheads graduate James Kasak, who also came off the bench last weekend.
“When the state of Virginia is good and we can get the best Virginia kids, it goes such a long way,” Brizendine said. “If it’s a lean year or a lean couple years, it’s tough because then you have all those [Virginia colleges] fighting over three or four players, and then we have to go outside the state. Do you know how hard it is to get a kid out of North Carolina?”
Redshirt freshman Will Mejia, a starter from Falls Church High School, is also playing for Tech for the first time this season.
Three international newcomers do start for the Hokies — freshman Humberto Montero from Costa Rica and transfers Marcelo Acuna and Elias Tamburini.
Acuna, a forward from Costa Rica, made the All-Western Athletic Conference second team last fall at Houston Baptist. Acuna, who leads the Hokies with 11 goals, was Tech’s lone representative on the All-ACC second team.
Tamburini, a Finland native, began his college career at an NAIA school in Texas before playing last fall for Patrick Henry Community College.
They joined a group of returning Hokies that included Forrest White, a Western Albemarle graduate who came off the bench to score the winning goal in OT last weekend; starter Juan Pablo Saavedra, a Falls Church graduate and junior-college transfer; starter Collin Verfuth from Briar Woods High School; and starter Drew Ott from Norfolk Academy.
Other Tech veterans are natives of Delaware (goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard), Florida (West Virginia transfer Alessandro Mion) and New Jersey (Rory Slevin).
The Hokies went 3-4-1 in ACC play, winding up as the ninth seed in the ACC tournament and losing in the first round.
Unlike in 2007, Tech was not named one of the 16 overall seeds in the 48-team NCAA field. Yet Tech was one of eight ACC teams to advance to the Sweet 16 and is one of five ACC squads in the Elite Eight.
Somoano, whose Tar Heels are also in the quarterfinals, said Brizendine has done a great job.
“Sometimes it takes a little time to get your program moving in the direction you want,” Somoano said. “The league is punishing.”
On Saturday, Tech will visit the No. 2 overall seed — ACC champ Wake Forest.
This is a younger Tech team than the 2007 squad; the Hokies start only two seniors.
So while the 2007 season was followed by a long rebuilding process, that should not be the case this time.
“I know what that’s like and I don’t want to do that again,” Brizendine said. “I don’t want to start over. And I don’t think that we will.”