Let's Not Ignore the Success of the Virginia Tech Men's Soccer Team
Amidst the panic of Virginia Tech’s football season, certain sports can tend to take a backseat on the priority list of Hokie sports fans. Virginia Tech currently has a team that is ranked fifth in the coaches poll, yet, no one seems to be talking about it.
The Virginia Tech Men’s Soccer team, led by head coach Mike Brizendine, was off to a bit of a rough start as they lost their first game 2-4 against Pitt. They went on to tie their next two games against UVA and Syracuse with a 1-1 score in both. The team kept their faith following those two games knowing that they were capable of more than what they were producing.
“We knew that those were not just the first three games of our season but also the first three games ever with this new group of players; unlike our opponents who all had some more experience under their belt when we met them. Things are not always perfect coming into a new season with a new group and usually, we play exhibition games before the real deal starts but not this year because of COVID,” says junior captain, Sivert Haugli.
The Hokies graduated three of the four members of their backline in the 2019 season which forced them to move some players around and rotate others into the lineup in the shortened 2020 season. Haugli, the Norway native, was moved to the defensive end of the field this year as opposed to his position at center midfield last year. New additions to the starting lineup include defender Kyle McDowell and midfielder Mayola Kinyua. However, the experience that the Hokies may have lost in their defense is evened out by the return of their entire offense.
Kristo Strickler, a senior captain who led the team in goals and points last year, already has 2 goals and an assist on the year. Sophomores Nick Blacklock and Daniel Periera also return to the squad. In addition to the offensive powerhouse is senior, Jacob Labovitz who has found plenty of success in the past three games.
Labovitz kicked off the Hokies' hot streak when he scored both goals in their 2-1 overtime win against Louisville. His first goal in regulation was assisted by Strickler. When the Hokies went into overtime, Labovitz scored within the first two minutes. Labovitz, who scored 5 goals in 18 games in 2019, was able to earn the honor of ACC Offensive Player of the Week after his performance. From there, the Hokies traveled directly to Notre Dame where they won 1-0 after Labovitz scored the game-winner off of an assist from McDowell. Labovitz attributes his success to the dedication that his team has put into this season.
“All of the guys have been here working hard every day since mid-July. We came in knowing that a season wasn’t guaranteed but we knew that the coaches and VT would do their very best to get us back out on the field in the safest way possible, “ says Labovitz.
“We didn’t play our first game until October, but Ron [Dickson] (VT Strength and Conditioning Coach) did such a great job keeping us fit and the coaches kept us sharp so when the time came we were ready. So I’d say the preparation, positive outlook on everything, and the hard work we put in when no one was watching has been the key to our success.”
Despite the offensive talent that the team has been producing, the Hokies defense has also held strong over the last three matches by producing back-to-back shutouts on the road against ACC opponents Notre Dame and Virginia.
“What we’ve at least have had success with in the last three games is being better defensively and conceding fewer goals. We have many great attacking players on the team with really good offensive abilities and we almost always seem to create chances and score goals in every game. If we can combine that with having a solid backline that’s hard to score on we would definitely be taking a step in the right direction of reaching our goal of making the Final Four,” says Haugli.
Although the starting goalkeeper of three years, Mathijs Swaneveld, has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, he already has a solid 9 saves on the year after returning two games into the season; 6 of those being in the last three games.
The last time that the Hokies were ranked as high as they are right now was in 2007. The team is hopeful that they can continue to build upon the success that they have found in the last few weeks and go all the way in the ACC tournament. The bracket is divided by the northern and southern regions of the ACC. The northern #2 seed Hokies will travel to Durham, North Carolina this weekend where they will face off against the southern #3 seed Clemson at noon on Sunday. If they win, they will play the winner of Wake Forest vs. UVA on the following Wednesday. While COVID-19 may have put a damper on their season, the Hokies appreciate that they have the opportunity to continue to play the sport they love during a chaotic time.
As Labovitz says, “We faced a lot of obstacles and we managed to overcome all of them and make the ACC tournament in a year that no one will ever forget. It’s something we can always be proud of and we all feel very fortunate that we are among the teams who are still able to be playing during these very difficult times.”