The past three times the MSU men’s soccer team (11-9-1 overall, 3-3-0 Big Ten) stepped onto the field, it’s been do or die.
Heading into the Big Ten Tournament under .500, the season was at stake in each game as the team knew a tournament win likely would be its only chance at the NCAA Tournament.
Three games, three wins and a tournament championship later, the Spartans are ready for the next chapter in their season — a chapter Cleveland State (12-5-3 overall, 2-0-1 conference) is going to try to end today.
The Vikings head to East Lansing for the first round of the NCAA Tournament against the Spartans at 1 p.m. today at DeMartin Stadium at Old College Field.
“The main thing is just keeping that even keel,” head coach Damon Rensing said.
“I think (my) guys have confidence, so we just have to make sure they know what we’ve talked about all week: Don’t worry about the name on the jerseys, just worry about what we can do as a team. We certainly need to approach this game regardless of who we’re playing.”
Junior defender Kevin Cope said the team’s mindset has been “win or the season’s over” for multiple games now.
Since the NCAA Tournament is single-game elimination as well, MSU is going to handle the upcoming game the same way it handled Big Ten Tournament games.
“I don’t think guys will panic,” Cope said. “I don’t think there’s any extra pressure on us. We’re in the tournament, and that’s great, and we want to succeed. The last three games, we’ve been having fun doing it, and we’ll continue to do that hopefully as we make a run in the tournament.”
The last time MSU made the NCAA Tournament was two seasons ago, and the Spartans made a run to the third round of the tournament before losing to North Carolina in penalty kicks.
Ten current Spartans were on the roster that season, including redshirts.
Transfer senior defenseman Luke Norman also competed in two NCAA College Cups with Wake Forest, his previous school.
Conversely, today is Cleveland State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1980.
Cope said his experience in the 2010 postseason will be important heading into today’s game.
Rensing added he hopes the players who played in MSU’s last tournament will lead by their presence in the game and an understanding of tournament play.
“The experience is a big factor,” Cope said. “I think that we’ve been in situations like that; I mean, everyone’s been in big games, but the NCAA Tournament is just a whole different level. I think if we can bring that experience and just calm the guys down, it will be very helpful.”
As a freshman goalkeeper, Zach Bennett has played in some high-pressure games to this point. He played in the regular-season MSU game at Michigan, which the Spartans lost, 1-0.
He called the U-M environment the “craziest” he’s witnessed, and he thinks that game, coupled with his Big Ten Tournament experience, has prepared him for what he’s getting into today.
He added that home-field advantage doesn’t hurt either.
“Once we saw that we were playing at home, we knew the Red Cedar Rowdies would be there with the drum, everything like that,” Bennett said. “Obviously, we know how to play on our field, and kind of the whole atmosphere of it. I think it helps us and motivates us in the right direction to start the tournament.”
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