An undefeated start has Virginia Tech Men’s Soccer ranked No. 9 in the nation and rolling into conference play. The Hokies have reached the NCAA Tournament in each of the past three years and are coming off of a Sweet 16 appearance last season. Now, the team looks ready to take the next step in 2019.
“We brought back a good nucleus and the first ranking is always based on what you did last year,” Brizendine said. “I told the guys, ‘That was last year’s group, this year’s group hasn’t done anything.’ Now, we are doing some stuff. [The ranking] is great for the fans, so they know what’s going on and the level of what we’re doing.”
Tech opened their season with a trip to the West Coast to face two California teams, Loyola Marymount and UC Santa Barbara. Brizendine picked up his 100th win of his career on the trip as well in the victory over UCSB. Overall, the week out in California was successful for the Hokies as they kicked off their season. They beat Loyola Marymount 2-1 and UCSB 3-1.
“It was a very difficult trip, and we were gone a while and it took a toll on us,” Brizendine said. “But with the results we got and the way that we played, at the end of it looking back, it was a great trip.”
After returning to Virginia, the Hokies traveled up I-81 to Harrisonburg to compete in the JMU Invitational. They knocked off Loyola (2-1) and Hofstra (4-3), both with late game-winners. Not every game has been easy for Tech, with three of four games ending with just a one goal advantage for the Hokies. However, they have fought late in games to stay undefeated early in the season.
A player who has shined for the Hokies late in games is junior midfielder Kristo Strickler. Strickler led the team in goals last season with 10 and has already put up three through the first four games. His first of the year was a game-winner in the 89th minute against Loyola Marymount. The other two scores came on Sunday against Hofstra to lead Tech to the 4-3 win. His scoring has been a main reason for the Hokies’ offensive success early in the year.
“[Strickler] works really hard. I think his technique in front of the goal is very good. His nose for what’s going on is also very good,” Brizendine said. “Obviously, we have high hopes and expectations for him because he is a very good player and he’s shown it again and is leading by example.”
One disadvantage the Hokies have had to face so far this season is playing all four games away from Thompson Field. Traveling to start the season can assist the team in preparing for hostile environments they will face in league play. However, there are always issues that seem to come up when teams have to play away from home.
“I think our guys are happy just not to be traveling. We do something that’s unique, especially within our league. No one else has played their first four games away,” Brizendine said. “Most people haven’t played any games away, which is okay. Every program can do what they want, but for us, it’s a system that works and it gets us out into tough environments.”
Now, not only do the Hokies get to come home, but they will almost certainly be playing in front of a raucous crowd in their home opener on Friday night. Tech welcomes No. 18 North Carolina into Blacksburg for a top-20 matchup to kick off conference play. The Hokies will be excited to play in front of their home fans for the first time in 2019, especially in such a high-profile game.
“I expect a big crowd, the field looks awesome, the new scoreboard is awesome, there will be nothing that keeps that from being an awesome game,” Brizendine said. “I’m excited for the game. It’s nice when you get to sit back and watch your team. I’ve had the pleasure over several years, when we’re good, our opponent is good, and I can just enjoy the game. I can become a fan and just realize that this is a really good game.”
Tech hasn’t had the easiest time facing UNC as of late. The Hokies have lost six straight games to the Tar Heels, including two losses last season. The most recent was a 3-0 defeat in the ACC Tournament last year. The difference this year is that the Hokies are ranked higher than the Tar Heels and have the talent to take them down. Now, they just have to put it all together and earn a signature win to start ACC play.
“We haven’t been able to put a 90-minute performance together and we really have to do that if we’re going to beat a quality side like [UNC]” Brizendine said. “I think back to just last year and I thought that we played them extremely well last year and still lost. That’s the quality of that side. We have to have a quality game plan and execute it over 90, 100, 110 minutes to get a result, and that’s just the bottom line.”