Nikki Izzo-Brown is just a few practices into the 2020 preseason and her voice is already coarse.
Luckily for her, it has less to do with her team’s performance and more to do with the safety measures undertaken by the team amid the ongoing pandemic — namely, the regular use of masks and social distancing.
“This is not good for my voice,” she said jokingly while wearing her WVU-branded mask.
The strain on her vocal chords is just one of a new set of challenges facing Izzo-Brown and the Mountaineers, who returned to the pitch this week to prepare for the 2020 season. The team just made their return to the pitch this week after months of Zoom meetings, and Coach Izzo-Brown says simply being in each others’ presence is enough to get the squad excited — but all those video chats translate to missed time on the field.
WVU will again be a young squad this year, and with seven freshmen, that lost time makes developing valuable chemistry difficult.
“Prior to the kids coming here, we had Zooms and we were kind of integrating, but as we all know there’s nothing like being in front of somebody and looking them in the eye and really showing that you’re…all in and you really care,” Izzo-Brown said. “So that’s definitely a challenge.”
Chemistry was not the only thing that took a hit during the stoppage, but also the opportunity to fully get Izzo-Brown’s new players a chance to fully integrate into the sport of college soccer.
“Getting them the experience that we missed in the spring, getting them the experience in high-pressure situations [is our emphasis for the preseason],” Izzo-Brown explained. “So I know in this training, in this camp, we have to get some type of high-pressure decision-making so we’re trying to get those experiences.”
Logistically, the team has their own “new normal.” Trainers have to follow specific protocols to remain socially distanced while they are preparing student-athletes for practices, and they have to see student-athletes in each of the three groups into which they are divided.
Then when practice begins, strength coach Josh Feldkamp has to warm up each pod of players in different corners of the practice pitch. During practice, players stay with their own groups, six feet apart from each other.
Each player has a chair, all of which are spread six feet apart. Water breaks occur with some already-prepared Gatorade already at their seat.
Even pinnies are socially-distanced — each player gets a bag of differently-colored pinnies to herself, which ensures that they’re not being shared.
Of course, one of the biggest challenges for Izzo-Brown and her team is not on the pitch or even at the practice facility — but simply in the form of uncertainty about the future. As teams and conferences across college athletics decide against holding fall sports seasons, question marks surround the Mountaineers’ own season as it approaches.
Despite that, Izzo-Brown (a self-described hardcore planner) has decided on a simple strategy: “Win the day.”
“It can be so consuming and everything changes so rapidly every day,” she said. “I have learned patience through and through, and it’s probably been the biggest and the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Izzo-Brown isn’t letting the new obstacles affect her mentality this summer. West Virginia was tabbed fourth in the Big 12 preseason poll, so she and her team have their work cut out ahead of them this season.
After months of waiting, separation and digital meetings, Izzo-Brown is happy to be back coaching the team and game she loves.
“It’s been very challenging for me to write a [practice] session in this environment, but every day is a gift,” she said. “So I’m just psyched to be doing what I do and what I’ve been doing for 25 years here at West Virginia so I’ll take it.”