Growing up in Plano, Texas, Zach Bennett said he always told his dad that one day, he wanted to play college soccer in the NCAA Tournament.
He said it’s one of the reasons he left his home state and traveled halfway across the country to come to MSU, and Thursday afternoon, Bennett got the opportunity he’s been waiting for.
The freshman goaltender was not going to let it go to waste, as he stood behind the MSU men’s soccer team (12-9-1 overall, 3-3-0 Big Ten), making key saves in the Spartans’ first round NCAA Tournament 2-1 defeat of Cleveland State.
“I played here from ‘93 to ‘96,” head coach Damon Rensing said.
“I never got to participate in (an NCAA Tournament). There’s a lot of alumni here that, all through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s that didn’t get a chance, so these guys, I’m happy for them and for the program.”
Sophomore forward Adam Montague once again made a showing for the Spartans as he put away an MSU goal for the fourth game in a row.
Senior midfielder Nick Wilson got the assist on Montague’s goal, and the duo struck again about seven minutes later, as Wilson picked up the goal with assists from Montague and junior defender Kevin Cope.
“Early on in the season, we didn’t really have a steady lineup,” Montague said. “Now that we’ve played all of these games together, there’s definitely a lot of chemistry that builds. Soccer’s all about chemistry, and the team — and Nick and I — played really well together.”
MSU held a 2-0 lead for almost the entire game, but allowed a late goal to its opponents for the fourth game in a row. Cleveland State’s Christian Arboleda took a strike from 18 yards out, passing by Bennett with about four minutes to play.
“We’ve been unfortunate these past few games, giving up late goals,” Montague said. “But we’ve had really strong performances early on we’ve been able to ride. I definitely think our defense is one of the best in the country, and we’re kind of getting unfortunate with these goals.”
A decisive moment in Thursday’s game came when Bennett made a diving save on Cleveland State’s Admir Suljevic’s penalty kick following an MSU foul inside the Spartans’ box.
Rensing said assistant coach Kylie Stannard watched film leading up to the game, and they expected Suljevic to kick it to the lower right corner.
“Once he did that little stutter step, I tried not to give it up too early because he might change where he wanted to go,” Bennett said. “Then when he hit it, I dove as far as I could to the left and got a good hand on it.”
The 2-1 win earned MSU an advance to the second round. The Spartans will travel to South Bend, Ind., where No. 1-seed Notre Dame will try to steal MSU’s hopes for a long NCAA run.
Notre Dame gave MSU its only two-goal loss of the season, defeating MSU 2-0 on Sept. 14, but Montague said the Spartans are an entirely different team now. When asked how far MSU can go in the tournament, Montague responded, “All the way.”