Zach Bennett becomes the winningest MSU goalkeeper in history
There is certainly a strong physical aspect to playing the goalie position in soccer. As the last line of defense and only player on the field allowed to use his hands, the goalie has to be nimble enough to cover the entire width of the net — 24 feet.
Senior goalkeeper Zach Bennett knows a thing or two about what it takes to be a good goalkeeper. In sole possession of the shutout record at MSU, Bennett uses every bit of his 6-foot-3, 191-pound frame to protect the net.
Despite his physical profile, Bennett credits his mental approach to the game as the factor that sets him apart as one of the best goalkeepers in the nation. Maintaining focus for 90 minutes per game is a unique challenge — one he has embraced since becoming the starting goalkeeper midway through his freshman season.
“As you get higher in the different levels of college, it becomes more of a mental game than a physical one,” Bennett said. “You’re trying to stay mentally focused for 90 minutes when some of the game is played on the other half of the field where you’re getting no action. So to try to stay focused for 90 minutes is a battle within the game and within the position.”
The Spartans have made it to the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons. MSU’s defense was the backbone in both tournament runs, boasting a top-25 GGA and save percentage in both 2014 and 2013.
It’s early to contemplate a similar run being made this year, but it’s safe to figure that Bennett’s stout play under the net will once again be a defining factor.
“To have a guy like that — nobody plays a perfect game, but I haven’t worried about goaltending any game this year when Zach’s in,” head coach Damon Rensing said.
Setting a Goal
At age 11, it was Bennett’s physical ability that pegged him as the goalkeeper for the Solar Chelsea Soccer Club, a developmental soccer team based in Dallas, Texas.
“When you first get into goalie, it’s a guy that’s not afraid to take a shot, take it to your body, somebody that has pretty good hand eye coordination, can handle the ball with their hands better than the rest of the team because it’s a completely different position,” Bennett said.
Bennett, who hails from the northern metro Dallas area, said youth soccer has a large presence in Texas. However, there are few Division 1 men’s soccer teams in the state, and Bennett knew he would have to look elsewhere to continue playing soccer in college.
He knew he wanted to play in a competitive conference for a competitive school. After taking his first visit to MSU, it was love at first sight.
“When I came up here I really loved the whole program, the coaching staff, and even before that,” Bennett said. “And before I even came up here, I knew I wanted to play in a competitive conference and obviously knowing that the Big Ten, Michigan State was a good school, a good soccer conference, they made my decision pretty easy when they started recruiting me.”
Bennett’s athletic ability immediately stood out to Rensing, but it was the quieter aspects of his game that sealed the deal from a recruiting standpoint.
“He wasn’t arrogant or cocky, but I could tell he believed in what he was doing and was confident in what he did,” Rensing said. “He had good temperament, never got too rattled after a mistake, never got too fired up after a big play. I thought he had a really good even keel, and I think it’s really good for my goalies to have that. Because you’re the last line of defense and if you can have that calming presence for the players in front of you, that’s huge.”
Bennett has continued to develop his mental understanding of the game, and Rensing said he has improve leaps and bounds in that respect.
“To really become an elite goalkeeper, you have to understand the nuances of the soccer,” Rensing said. “When he first started playing goal, I thought he was a little behind. ... He’s becoming a better reader of the game and a communicator.”
One of the best
Rensing won’t name who he thinks the best goalkeeper to ever play at MSU is, but Bennett is certainly in the discussion.
On Sept. 4, Bennett became the winningest goalkeeper of all time at MSU with a 4-0 shutout over Niagara. Prior to the start of the season, he was No. 6 all-time on the career saves list, No. 3 on the save percentage list, and is on top of the career shutout list.
With most of his senior year in front of him, Bennett is far from finished.
“It’s really exciting to watch because Zach, you know, has put the work into it,” Rensing said. “He’s similar to Fatai (Alashe). In order to do well, you have to have talent. You also have to be willing to put the time in, not just during the season, but after practice, over the summer.”
Bennett’s experience at the net has helped put the Spartans in a position to succeed. He admits maintaining his trademark focus for 90 minutes each game is a challenge, but he understands if he lets his mind drift for even a couple seconds during a game, it could swing the course of the season.
“It’s honestly just experience, playing so many games for Michigan State and even before that, of learning that no matter what, no matter how little action you’ve got all game, no matter how little time you have left in the game, no matter when you’re about to get to or whatever title you’re about to get to, you have to focus get that and think about the play that’s ahead of you,” Bennett said.