While the West Virginia Mountaineers took a major step forward last season, going 13-8-2 and advancing to the NCAA Tournament, many felt that a turbulent offseason would have the team tumbling back down the stairs.
Former Penn State assistant Marlon LeBlanc took the head coaching job at West Virginia just days before the preseason started. Former coach Mike Seabolt was fired over alleged NCAA violations, according to reports, and Seabolt unsuccessfully filed suit to try to get his job back.
LeBlanc has taken a talented WVU squad and maintained its defensive discipline while adding an attacking mentality. The result has been a 15-1-2 record, a top-five ranking and one of the most dangerous teams in the country as the season winds down.
Coach LeBlanc took a few minutes to talk about his arrival in Morgantown and some of the challenges and surprises he's had during his first season as a head coach.
ESPNsoccernet: Why was West Virginia the right choice for you?
Marlon LeBlanc: When the opportunity came up, I thought it was a place I could be successful right away. Obviously, playing in the Big East was a big-time lure, and West Virginia's commitment to the men's soccer program made it really a no-brainer for me.
ESPNsoccernet: What was the toughest part about getting the job just days before preseason started?
ML: The soccer part was the easy part. The toughest part was packing up and driving in the car and leaving my wife and daughter behind while they stayed behind and sold the house at Penn State. The soccer part was easy because the guys were committed and were looking to move forward.
ESPNsoccernet: What was the reception that you got from the guys on the team?
ML: With all of the stuff going on here all summer long, I think the guys were ready and excited to get started when I got here. [Senior] Chris Wittig called me on my way down here and told me, "Coach, we're looking forward to you getting down here and getting to work." I think they were ready to move on and get the soccer started. They were eager, to say the least.
ESPNsoccernet: What was the biggest surprise you've had so far?
ML: I didn't think we would be so far this fast, to be honest. Not because we didn't have the talent or players -- because I think the cupboard was full when I got here -- but because there are so many things that could've gone wrong to start the year.
Maybe guys don't buy into what I want to do, or maybe guys who were playing before weren't playing now. It has been well-deserved, though, because they've worked very hard and played good soccer. The other surprising part is how the people of West Virginia have embraced the team this year. The support that they are getting here and the reception they are getting from alumni and the notoriety has been fantastic, as well. It's been a great atmosphere around the team.
ESPNsoccernet: How valuable are assistant coaches Bryan Green and Keith Wiggins?
ML: Both of my assistant coaches have done a fantastic job, especially in that time period when things could've gone bad, and a lot of that credit has to go to Bryan and Keith.
Bryan had everything organized for preseason -- all the meals and plans were set up -- because my first day was the first day of preseason. Both guys have been crucial in keeping things going and helping me find my feet and getting me through some of the behind-the-scenes stuff.
ESPNsoccernet: How receptive was the team to a new style of play?
ML: I think the guys wanted to change the style, and I think that's why they were eager. When I interviewed, I said that I wanted to go forward and play attacking soccer. At the end of the day, the difference between a good team and an elite team is that elite teams can score goals and put teams away -- not just defend. You have to score goals to win games, and these guys are willing to do this.
Take a guy like Jarrod Smith, who has reached his career high in goals. He's always been a very good player, but he hasn't had the numbers to go with it. Now he has those numbers because we're committing more players to the attack. We want to excite the crowd and have fun when we play, and we're doing that.
ESPNsoccernet: What makes Jarrod Smith such an effective goal scorer?
ML: I think Jarrod would be the first to tell you that he is the beneficiary of a lot of good play and the attacking philosophy of the players behind him. The kid's a good player, and he find ways to score goals. He scored a goal against UConn from no angle and you just look and wonder how he put it in the back of the net.
We've got some good players sitting behind him, like Dan Stratford and Andy Wright, so we've got good players around him that make him a better player. Jarrod's a senior who's committed to the team aspect of things, and he's an All-America candidate, and people are starting to take more notice of him.
ESPNsoccernet: How has the team grown in confidence throughout the year?
ML: The first couple of games we were still adjusting, and I'm not sure if we were totally buying into what we were trying to do. The turning point, I think, was when we beat Cal State Northridge, who are obviously a very good team. From that point on, we really started to roll and were committed to going forward and scoring goals.
Another important game was against South Florida. If you would've asked my team before we went to South Florida if they would've been happy with a draw, they probably would've said yes. But when South Florida scored with three minutes left to tie it, our guys were disappointed that they let it go. I think it sunk in with them that they can play with these top teams.
Obviously, playing against Virginia and going down a man early in the game and battling back and tying the game and having opportunities to win the game with 10 men was the final eye-opener for the team, in terms of believing that they can compete with what was then the No. 1 team in the country.
The confidence factor from going out and committing to a new system of play and seeing that it was paying dividends certainly helped them believe that they could do it.
ESPNsoccernet: What were the emotions about the Penn State game and how did that game feel different?
ML: It was interesting going to Penn State and sitting on the opposite bench and seeing some of the guys that I recruited and coached on the opposite side of the field. Once we got into the warm-ups and stuff, the nostalgia was gone and it was about wanting to win the game.
I owe a lot to [coach] Barry Gorman. He gave me my first opportunity as an assistant at Penn State. Without him, I would not be at West Virginia today. It was great to go there and get a win, but I owe him for this opportunity.
ESPNsoccernet: How has the fan support increased as the season gone on?
ML: The people in Morgantown love a winner, and if you can put a winning product on the field people will show up to watch. This is a great college sports town. West Virginia University is the major player in the state. Now that we're winning, there's a big, empty bandwagon for people to jump on, and we're happy to have people jump on. If we continue to win and play exciting soccer where we're putting balls in the back of the net, I think we can build a nice little atmosphere and home-field advantage here.
ESPNsoccernet: How has going forward more put more pressure on your defense and goalie Nick Noble?
ML: I want to go on record has having said that Nick Noble is a big-time goalkeeper, and I don't think he gets enough credit for what he does. I've seen some of the top goalkeepers in the country, and there's no doubt in my mind that he's among them. He also has some good players in front of him. The kids work so hard for each other offensively and defensively, and a lot of credit goes to the guys in the way that they defend.
Our defenders have the capability of marking some of the top guys in the country -- UConn had one of the most athletic teams I've ever seen, and the guys did a great job to shut them down. The defensive system we have and the way we play is the backbone of our team.
Adam Zundell is a contributor to ESPN.com. His story on Jason Garey, "The Kid Can Play," won first place in the College Division in the NSCAA's annual writing contest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.