When Dan Stratford was announced as the new head coach of the West Virginia men’s soccer program in January 2020, there was not a thought in anyone’s mind that college athletics would be over by March due to COVID-19.
Fast forward to February 2021, Stratford and the Mountaineers have yet to see the pitch even though soccer is normally played in the fall. Due to the Mid-American Conference announcing that men’s soccer would not be played until the spring, West Virginia’s plans shifted to a spring 2021 season rather than a fall 2020 season.
“As it’s been with the pandemic, the more you learn about it, the more you can feel like you’re better prepared,” Stratford said on adjusting to a new season. “It’s been a lot of adjustments. It’s been trying to be as versatile as you can be and evolve as the precautions do in terms of what we can do and what’s the best practice and what’s safe.”
With Stratford being hired so close to the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, he lost opportunities to connect with his team under normal circumstances. Stratford believes one of the biggest losses has been the inability to play exhibition games prior to the season starting.
“By the time the pandemic really showed itself for what it was going to be and how difficult things are going to be, we’d only spent maybe a month or six weeks maximum together as a team,” Stratford said. “At that point, I was still getting to know the players and they were still getting to know me. We were getting to the best part in the spring where we were about to start playing some exhibition games, and that has probably been the biggest challenge in all this is our ability not to.”
The Mountaineers are scheduled to play 12 matches this spring, but there was already an early adjustment to the season opener. West Virginia was scheduled to face Coastal Carolina on Feb. 20 to begin the Stratford era, but that game was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Coastal Carolina program.
Without exhibition games and a cancellation to begin the 2021 season, Stratford and the Mountaineers are still waiting for their opportunity to showcase their talents.
“The proof is in the pudding, and we haven’t had any pudding yet,” Stratford said. “We’re very much looking forward to that part and I think that’s going to give us a renewed focus and a clearer vision for how this team is going to continue to evolve and improve.”
The MAC didn’t announce a spring schedule for its respective schools until October. During that time, Stratford continued to have questions about his team that were left unanswered with no matches to play. Now, the Mountaineers will look to answer the questions surrounding the team as their season begins on Friday against Charlotte.
“We haven’t had enough of that time together just yet so there’s still a lot of unanswered questions about this group that I’m looking forward to seeing how they face these challenges and obviously, collectively as a group, how we adapt and evolve to these challenges as well,” he said.