West Virginia entered 2021 hungry. The Mountaineers had just gotten, as they felt, snubbed from the NCAA Tournament that spring, and couldn’t wait to embark on a full campaign in the fall.

That hunger quickly turned to production. In just three games, WVU went from unranked to No. 5 in the country and stayed unbeaten into October. It took that momentum into the NCAA Tournament where the Mountaineers were eliminated in the Elite Eight by Georgetown in penalty kicks.

“That’s, I guess, the miracle of last season, how well we started,” Dan Stratford, the team’s head coach, said ahead of its first preseason friendly on Friday. “Obviously, the bar is incredibly high this year for a good start as well.”

The 2022 preseason is much different than that of 2021. WVU sought last year to prove a point with its play after its perceived snub, and to an extent, it did. At the very least, Stratford’s squad established by the end of the campaign that it is worthy of making the NCAA Tournament and competing for a national title.

That manifested a No. 6 ranking for the Mountaineers in this year’s preseason poll, so it is clear that United Soccer Coaches feels they are among the best in the nation. Stratford said that his players still have to play like they have something to prove this season.

“The big difference is now is that they can’t forget what got us there last year, because it will be exactly the same again this season,” Stratford said. “We out-worked a ton of teams last season, we wanted it more than a ton of teams last season, and I think the experience I had at Charleston where we were often the No. 1 team in the country and the head scout for pretty much every team we played, we’re going to have to deal with that a little bit this year as well.”

That line of thinking seems to be reflected in his players. Bjarne Thiesen, an All-American in 2021 and one of WVU’s top players ahead of 2022, echoed Stratford’s sentiment and said there is even more for the Mountaineers to prove this year.

“I think we’re not a challenger anymore, we’re getting challenged, so everybody will be highly motivated against us,” Thiesen said. “But I think the group can do it again.”

WVU center-back Bjarne Thiesen makes a pass during the Mountaineers’ victory against Elon in 2021. (Photo: Sam Coniglio/Gold and Blue Nation)

That ranking is far from a negative for WVU, though. While many teams see a top-10 ranking as a target, Thiesen called it a “privilege,” and said it doesn’t change the way the Mountaineers prepare for the season.

However, there are some added challenges below the surface WVU has to face ahead of the regular campaign, and Thiesen is a prime example of that. The German center-back competed in USL League Two with the Long Island Roughriders, where he ranked among the top prospects in the league.

Thiesen led the Roughriders to the league final, which they played on Saturday night in California. On Monday morning, the redshirt junior was in Morgantown for the first day of WVU’s training. (The Roughriders fell 2-1 to Ventura County Fusion.)

That quick turnaround means Thiesen has been sidelined for all of WVU’s first week of practice, and he is one of several players taking limited minutes on the pitch during training.

“Everybody’s here, not everybody’s fit. We had some really successful teams in USL Two this summer, so some players that went deep into playoffs. … So I’ve got to manage a few people a little bit differently to a typical preseason, but for the most part, yeah, everyone’s pretty healthy and we definitely feel as though when we get to Robert Morris that we’ll have everyone available and healthy, which is the big news, I suppose.”