Saturday, November 26, 2022

Youthful MSU has much to look forward to

Alex Difilippo

This season was a practice run for the MSU men’s soccer team.

And it still went pretty well.

With defender Tim Granaderos as the team’s lone senior, the Spartans will return 10 of 11 starters next year.

MSU lost six starters entering this season, and, although the team was very young this year, MSU managed to exceed preseason expectations — earning the No. 14 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament before being eliminated by Duke on Sunday in the second round of the tournament.

The team wanted to extend its season for Granaderos, as he established himself as an inspirational leader on the team. But in the back of their minds, they knew next season they could return even stronger, poised for a deep postseason run.

“We are basically coming back with the same exact lineup, except for Timmy,” junior co-captain and defender Colin Givens said. “We can look positively and realize the way we ended playing, we are going to start playing like that immediately next season. We can only go up from here.”

Despite starting only one senior, the Spartans held their own against each team they played this season. Of MSU’s eight losses, six came by one goal. And they were competing against some of the best teams in the country — playing 11 of 21 games against teams that made the 48-team NCAA Tournament field.

Much of the credit goes to the MSU coaches, who weren’t afraid to schedule games against the top teams in the country.

With a goalkeeper like junior Avery Steinlage, why wouldn’t the coaches want to play the best teams? Steinlage established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the country and gave the Spartans a chance to win every game. And yes, he will return next season, needing seven more shutouts to break the MSU all-time career shutout record.

MSU’s midfield — often the place where games are won and lost — will be stacked next year. Three of the four midfielders will be seniors, and all three will be legitimate candidates for First Team All-Big Ten accolades by the end of the year.

Junior midfielder Spencer Thompson garnered All-Big Ten First Team honors this season for his ability to easily weave through defenders and his ball dispensing skills.

Joining Thompson will be junior attacking-midfielder Jeff Ricondo, who matches his speed and size with a recklessness to win every 50-50 ball sent his way. It’s shocking he wasn’t awarded first or second team All-Big Ten honors this season.

And then there’s junior midfielder Nosa Iyoha, who was never 100 percent this year because of a knee injury that stuck with him since the start of the season. Iyoha is a defense-first midfielder who is great in the air and also in one-on-one situations.

The Spartans’ defense also will be strong, losing only Granaderos from his position as right back. With a banged-up team coming down the stretch of the season, sophomore defender Stephen Lucianek saw heavy loads of game time and likely will be the candidate to fill the void left by Granaderos.

Offense again will be the question mark entering next season. But sophomore forward Rubin Bega earned a valuable year of game experience this season, recording a team-high 10 goals.

Sophomore forward Domenic Barone seemed poised to have a breakout year up-top for the Spartans, but went down midway through the season with a knee injury. Expect Bega and Barone to return next year stronger and more accustomed to the rough-and-tough style of Big Ten soccer.

With such an experienced returning group, the Spartans surely will be picked to finish near the top of the table in the Big Ten preseason polls.

The experience the Spartans gained this season will pay dividends next year, and the team still has all winter and spring to establish more chemistry.

Sure, losing Sunday was tough. No one wants to see their season come to an end after leaving everything on the field.

“It’s hard to think about next season,” MSU head coach Damon Rensing said following the Spartans’ season-ending loss Sunday. “We are going to take a few days off and mourn, then start thinking about next year in a few days.”

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Yes, take time to mourn. But don’t get too down on yourselves.

It was a great season and it set the table for what could be one of the most impressive seasons in MSU soccer history.

Alex DiFilippo is the State News men’s soccer reporter. He can be reached at difilip3@msu.edu.

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