Injured Keppler leads WVU past No. 9 Rutgers
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- As West Virginia's bench sprinted onto the field at the end of Sunday's 1-0 upset win against No. 9 Rutgers in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, Mountaineers freshman Caralee Keppler lagged behind the pack, a wide smile on her face and a serious hitch in her gait.
The celebration could begin without her. A stroke of coaching genius and a good tape job made sure it would last.
Playing for the first time in more than a month because of a partially torn hamstring, Keppler came on as a second-half substitute and scored her first career goal with four minutes to play against the Scarlet Knights. When she came on with about 20 minutes to play, it also marked, by her account, her first game action as a forward since she was about 9 years old. A midfielder in high school and club soccer, she began her West Virginia career by moving to center back before the injury.
"Honest to God, I'm not a forward," Keppler offered, a touch of amazement at what had just transpired still in her voice.
But in the midst of a season in which West Virginia has started 10 freshmen and sophomores at various times and had scored just 19 goals in 19 games before Sunday's quarterfinal, coach Nikki Izzo-Brown had something else in mind when it became evident that Keppler might be able to provide 15 or 20 minutes of energy off the bench.
"What she brings is she brings speed, strength and obviously she can strike a ball," Izzo-Brown said. "Obviously, her qualities were something that I thought would just mix it up and something that we don't have up top and that could really help us.
"And obviously, for Keppler to finish that was brilliant. And she has it in her. She might claim that she only plays defense, but we've seen her, in training, dribble through our whole team and finish. It wasn't anything shocking to me."
Keppler's ongoing battle with the balky hamstring -- she played six minutes against South Florida at the end of September, two weeks after the initial injury, only to suffer another setback -- had been an apt metaphor for a team's season of frustration. West Virginia had wins against Penn State, Tennessee, Marquette and St. John's but still found itself too close to the NCAA tournament bubble for comfort entering the conference tournament.
Sunday's win ought to secure at least an at-large bid. And perhaps Keppler's perseverance was again a metaphor.
• A quick return to Portland: It's a legacy of former Pilots coach Clive Charles that the Pilots play attractive, technical soccer, something that lives on through current coach Garrett Smith. But the speed with which they do it this season -- particularly down the flanks -- is striking to watch. And it's something Smith said compares favorably to even the 2005 undefeated national championship team.
"I think our overall team speed may be a little bit better," Smith said last week. "When you start looking from Michelle Enyeart, just raw, athletic speed that can get by anybody at any time and create a bunch [of opportunities], to Kendra Chandhoke out wide right to Kendall Johnson wide left -- and the two players sitting in behind those two [Elli Reed and Jessica Tsao] aren't slow, either."
It also says all you need to know about the personal responsibility inherent in the program's philosophy that Enyeart and Sophie Schmidt came to Smith early in the season with the suggestion they switch positions -- Enyeart to forward and Schmidt to attacking midfielder -- and that Smith trusted two of his co-captains enough to do it.