Mike Brizendine knew what he was getting into.
Fresh off an Elite Eight appearance in 2016, the Virginia Tech men’s soccer coach knew the stakes. With most of his team returning for the 2017 season, Brizendine believed they could handle a tough schedule. He didn’t have to worry about keeping his team level-headed, because they would be humbled by other teams on a weekly basis.
Virginia Tech’s schedule, which was rated as the third-toughest schedule by HERO Sports, was arguably the toughest in the country. All 10 teams the Hokies lost to in 2017 made the NCAA Tournament.
“Everyone knew that was a really tough schedule,” Brizendine said. “So I didn’t have to try and keep those guys humble, because once they saw that they knew we had our work cut out for us.”
Combine Tech’s brutal gauntlet with injuries to key pieces of rotation — Nico Quashie, Rory Slevin, Will Mejia and Hayden Kickbush all missed significant time this season — and it’s totally understandable that Virginia Tech finished the regular season 9-9. But even at 9-9, Virginia Tech made the NCAA Tournament and won a game in the tournament for the second consecutive season.
The significance of that achievement? Virginia Tech men’s soccer hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons since 2006-2007.
“I have mixed emotions when I look back on this season because we had a good group, and I put that schedule together because I knew we’d be good,” Brizendine said. “I was trying to challenge us so that when we got in the tournament, we could really roll.”
Virginia Tech’s up-and-down season really started on Sept. 19, when the Hokies kicked off a five-game win streak. That stretch included a home win against Notre Dame, who was ranked No. 1 at the time —the Fighting Irish finished at No. 14. Virginia Tech followed that with a four-game losing streak, putting Virginia Tech in a tight position at the end of the season. The Hokies had one regular season match remaining, and needed a win.
The problem? Tech had to win at Pittsburgh, a place the Hokies’ hadn’t won at since 2002.
“Basically, whoever won that game put themselves in an unbelievable position to go to the NCAA Tournament, and we had to go there and play on turf,” Brizendine said. “It was their alumni weekend, all the things were stacked up. And in that game, and the next one against NC State, but that game particularly, it showed our mentality and the belief that we wanted to win and can win, and that we need to win if we’re going to achieve some of our goals.”
Tech won that game 3-0, all but assuring them a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Tech followed it up with a win over NC State in the ACC Tournament, and earned another bid into the tournament. And even though Virginia Tech wasn’t able to improve on their 2016 season, Brizendine is proud of his team’s finish.
“What I commend my seniors on achieving is keeping our group together,” Brizendine said. “We hit a rough patch…we were up and down, then we went on a five-win streak, and a good win streak…We had a really good stretch, then we had an equally bad stretch.”
As good as the last two seasons have been for Virginia Tech, these last two years have been just as important for Brizendine. Since taking over the head coaching position in 2009, Tech had failed to record a winning season or make the NCAA Tournament. Brizendine and the Hokies went 7-40-12 against ACC competition.
Since 2015, Virginia Tech is 23-15-4 overall and 6-9-1 in the ACC. Tech has made the NCAA Tournament in two consecutive seasons, and has won at least one match in the tournament in both seasons.
“I knew, the staff knew, that we could turn it around, that we could get things going in the right direction,” Brizendine said. “It just took time, after everything we had gone through. And again, I’m grateful for our patient administration, who was in it. But it’s helped us. It’s helped us try to keep it, and we think we’re at a level that we can keep. In the tournament, be on the bubble, be around it. We think that’s kind of the position we’ve gotten ourselves into. As long as we can keep up the recruiting, we don’t see a drop off.”
With Virginia Tech men’s soccer on the rise, Brizendine’s task of maintaining this new level of success will be almost as difficult as getting the Hokies there in the first place. In terms of on-field talent, the Hokies must replace starting forward Marcelo Acuna, a two-year starter with 23 career goals, and starting goal keeper Ben Lundgaard, who started parts of all four seasons in his career. Tech must also replace Drew Ott, who served as a glue guy off the bench.
“Talent-wise, we are doing a good job,” Brizendine said. “But, there are still concerns as far as leadership. Who’s going to lead this group? We’re losing Ben, Collin Verfurth and Marcelo. Captains, guys that are all in, and a 10-member senior class who had the right mentality, were great kids.”
Virginia Tech will rely on several players next season to replace the production from guys like Lundgaard and Acuna. Rory Slevin, Brendan Moyers, Emil Koho and Kristo Strickler figure to play big roles in the midfield in 2018, while Justus Kauppinen and Nico Quashie will attempt to fill the void left by Acuna at forward. Hayden Kickbush, a highly-recruited player who missed the 2017 season, is expected to take over for Lundgaard.
“I think we have enough guys who want to win…that’s what you have to have,” Brizendine said. “You have to have a group that wants to win, and is committed to it.”
In terms of the program, things are on the up. Not only is the on-field success becoming more consistent, the program as a whole is getting to where Brizendine wants it to be. He has continuity with his coaching staff, as long-time assistants Jeff Kinney and Patrick McSorely and goalkeeper coach Ryan Hulings will all return in 2018. Tech’s players turned in a collective GPA over 3.0 this fall, and the Hokies are finding more success on the recruiting trail.
Reinforcements are on the way for the program, as Tech will get two facilities upgrades over the next couple of years. The Rector Field House renovation, which is slated to be finished this year, will include brand new game locker rooms for men’s and women’s soccer. The future student athlete performance center on the fourth floor of Jamerson Athletic Center will help all of Tech’s programs, and will give Brizendine another stop on his tour for prospects.
“I like driving people around, saying, ‘Look at this. Look how awesome this is,’” Brizendine said. “I want all of our facilities to be awesome, because when we walk people around, every time we make a pit stop at softball, baseball, indoor track, I want everybody to be like, ‘Goodness, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen. Goodness, it doesn’t stop. The Indoor, we can play games here, wow.’ I want to blow their socks off with everything. And the reality is, what aren’t we blowing peoples’ socks off with?
“I think we’re in a good spot, really. I think we have consistency over all aspects of our program. So when I look and gauge things, I’m pleased with where it is.”