MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s women’s soccer team begins its 2023 regular season on Thursday. Nikki Izzo-Brown’s program has been one of the most dominant in the Big 12 since WVU joined the conference in 2012, sporting four regular-season conference titles and five conference tournament championship trophies.
With four soccer programs — BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF — added to the Big 12 this fall, the schedule model has changed. Instead of playing nine conference matches (one against every opposing team in the league), the Mountaineers will play 10 league games against 10 of the 13 other Big 12 schools.
That is the formula for the 14-team league in 2023. As for the scheduling model of next year’s 16-team league, Izzo-Brown and her peers are uncertain.
“I was just on a two-hour Zoom with the [Big 12], and us wanting the ’24 schedule as soon as possible,” Izzo-Brown said earlier this week. “We looked with the scheduler to see what that was going to look like. I think everything is so fluid right now for all of us.”
Big 12 coaches have a vote in how the schedule is put together, though they aren’t the only ones with a say in the matter.
While much has been discussed about the composition of the Big 12 once Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah join the conference, she stated no information has been presented on the possibility of the league moving to a divisional format in her sport beginning in 2024.
With that many teams in the conference, the odds are increasing that clubs will face a program in the Big 12 postseason tournament they did not take on in the regular season. While that may worry some, it does not concern Izzo-Brown, who faced a similar dilemma in the old Big East Conference. However, it does feed into one of her larger concerns.
“When it comes to tie-breakers, when you don’t play everybody head-to-head, I think that’s a huge issue. How do you determine a tie-breaker?” she asked. “I think that will be something we are all very aware of, and I am aware of, from past experience with a bigger-sized conference. And that is something that we need to make sure that we address.”
Tie-breakers and conference or divisional alignment still come in a distant second to Izzo-Brown’s — and many others around college athletics — top concern: travel.
“Ideally, if someone would ask me, let football be football, let them go to their conferences, and just regionalize all the rest of our sports. Because the travel is going to get real interesting for everybody, I mean from the Big Ten to all of us,” said Izzo-Brown.
The veteran Mountaineer head coach noted the ability, financially, of schools to charter flights for football programs. Other sports, like women’s soccer, fly almost exclusively commercial. With the Big 12 footprint expanding into a third timezone this year, she sees a growing contrast in the way programs will travel greater distances.
“Women’s soccer, we don’t have that luxury. So, what schools do we really have to charter to? What schools can we go commercial, and how long does that take. Are we taking a day and a half to get to a place? I mean, we go pretty far now. So, those will be things that I hope Wren [Baker] and his staff will work through. And we’re just going to have to experience it. But, yeah, there’s a bit of worry for me in making sure that the student-athlete first gets their degrees and we’re mindful of that.”Nikki Izzo-Brown
There is also the matter of how increased travel can affect the student aspect of the student-athlete.
“Our beast is totally different (than football) because we play two games in a week. I did get a sense of one-game weeks when we were in COVID. I wouldn’t be as worried if it was a one-game [week],” Izzo-Brown said. “The two-game week, my biggest concern is where do you put an off day? And where do these kids take classes? That is the forefront of my concerns.”
The Big 12 has raised its status and increased its footprint. The conference has added a brand-name football school in BYU, multiple highly decorated basketball programs like Arizona and Houston, and solid competition across the board in every sport the league sponsors.
Between this year and next, the Big 12 welcomes six women’s soccer programs that finished last year in the top 70 in RPI. BYU (17) and UCF (20) both finished in the top 20 in the metric, with ASU being rated No. 37.
Always up for a challenge, the added strength and competition in her sport excites Izzo-Brown. Though, she admittedly isn’t as enthused by the thought of her team playing in the Colorado altitude.
A new season begins Thursday against stiff competition. West Virginia faces a Duke team that finished last year fifth in the nation in RPI and bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight in double-overtime. So, Izzo-Brown will shift her attention to the present and what’s happening on the field, even as she considers all the potential speedbumps that conference realignment has laid in front of her.
“[I’m] totally excited that our league has just gotten better, and whatever that looks like, we’ll know sooner than later to determining a conference schedule.”