MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Nikki Izzo-Brown believes that the WVU women’s soccer team has the perfect blend of motivation heading into the 2023 season.

The Mountaineers were considered underdogs when the won the Big 12 tournament title last season as the No. 4 seed. Shortly after, they lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

With the team carrying a large batch of returners in 2023, the team now knows the sweet taste of success, and the bitter taste of a season-ending loss.

“By winning a Big 12 Championship, we can look to that a lot and how exciting that was,” Izzo-Brown said. “So, I think failing and not making a Sweet 16, but also winning a championship, will kind of be the yin and yang of the experience this season, and hopefully it will be our fuel for our fire.”

Eighteen players who earned minutes for WVU last year will return for the 2023 season, while seven newcomers make up the freshman class.

“It’s always exciting to have a senior-heavy group to work with,” Izzo-Brown said.

Goalkeeper Mackenzie Smith (Florida State) and forward Jaydah Bedoya (UConn) headline this year’s transfer class. Bedoya led the Huskies in goal scoring as a sophomore in 2021, and she scored twice in 11 starts as a junior.

WVU finished sixth in the conference last season in both points and goals. While two of the team’s leaders in points from last season (Dilary Heredia-Beltran – AJ Rodriguez) are returning, Izzo-Brown is looking for more production offensively.

“Everybody’s looking for that talented forward that can score,” she said. “It’s hard to recruit, so we got to develop them. So, we’re really excited about the freshmen that have come in, and then the returners.”

The team will be down a pair of midfielders for the entirety of the 2023 season. Leah Sparacio and Iman Mustafa both suffered knee injuries this offseason. Izzo-Brown hopes that Sparacio will be back for the spring.

As for the center back position on defense, Izzo-Brown doesn’t believe she has to look for following the departures of Gabrielle Robinson and Jordan Brewster. Between Rodriguez’s midfield experience, and the development of Mackenzie Aunkst and Annika Leslie, there is little worry.

“It’s not an easy task to replace their position,” Izzo-Brown said. “They know the position well.”

The star of the show is Kayza Massey in net. Massey started each game in net for the past two years for WVU, earned All-Big 12 honors in both 2021 and 2022 and was recently named to the preseason All-Big 12 team.

Izzo-Brown also brought in former Liberty assistant coach Eric Beltran as a full-time assistant to aid in Massey’s and Smith’s development. The goalkeeper’s coach was previously a volunteer assistant position.

“Eric has been an incredible addition, to not only oversee goalkeeping specifically, but just all aspects to help,” she said. “Because we are at 30, I think, athletes right now. It’s a lot for three coaches, so now, with four, I think it suits the athlete better with giving them the attention and education that they deserve.”

The season officially opens on Thursday when the Mountaineers travel to Durham, North Carolina, to take on Duke at 7 p.m.

WVU then returns to Morgantown with matchups against St. Francis (Pa.) on Sunday, Aug. 20, Penn State on Thursday, Aug. 24, and Duquesne on Sunday, Aug. 27, at 1 p.m.

New to this season, the conference expands to 14 teams with the additions of UCF, BYU, Cincinnati and Houston. Teams will play 10 conference games, which is up-one from the previous number of nine.

“Our league’s going to be stronger for sure,” Izzo-Brown said. “BYU and Central Florida are both incredibly strong programs, so I’m excited.”