Evanston, Ill.— Success didn’t come easy, but it finally came.
It’s been the tone of the entire MSU men’s soccer (11-9-1 overall, 3-3-0 Big Ten) season, and it was exemplified Sunday afternoon, as the Spartans fought rival Michigan to a 2-1 overtime win, making MSU 2012 Big Ten Tournament champions.
“I thought the game was indicative of our entire season, and that’s a credit to our guys,” head coach Damon Rensing said. “We hit some adversity, and we could have went in the tank, and the guys didn’t. They stuck together, and they stayed positive to win it. It’s been an up-and-down year, and we had an up-and-down game, but we came out on top.”
Heading into the tournament below .500, MSU knew its only ticket to the NCAA Tournament likely was a Big Ten Tournament championship.
The Spartans came to Lakeside Field at Northwestern to win, and that’s exactly what they did.
“I’ve never had anything like this,” freshman midfielder Sean Conerty, who netted the game-winning overtime goal, said. “It’s the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to me. Just being a freshman and being able to come through for my team like that, it’s unreal.”
Seeded at No. 5 out of seven teams, MSU wasn’t expected to take home a title.
Battling as the underdogs in three consecutive games, the Green and White took down No. 4 Indiana, 2-1, No. 1-seed Penn State, 3-1, then No. 3 U-M, 2-1.
There also might have been a little revenge-seeking on the part of MSU, as U-M had denied the Spartans’ hopes for a regular-season Big Ten title on Nov. 3.
MSU led for the majority of Sunday’s game against U-M, as sophomore forward Adam Montague nailed the ball into the back of the net from about 22 yards out.
The Spartans maintained that lead for basically the duration of the game.
When the tournament seemed to almost be over, U-M flicked it past freshman goalie Zach Bennett to tie up the game with less than three minutes to play.
Although it might have appeared the Wolverines held the momentum heading into overtime, Conerty stepped up about seven minutes into the extra period with a rocket into the opposing net.
“Our leaders stepped up,” Rensing said of the bench at the end of regulation. “Kevin Cope, Domenic Barone, Nick Wilson, (Ryan) Keener, they stepped up so (the coaches) didn’t have to say much. Probably the unsung M.V.P. is Barone because he called both coin tosses and got them right. We just talk about making one play — one play in overtime — and we certainly made one play.”
Accompanied by 30-mile-per-hour winds throughout the game, both teams were met by an unexpected second opponent, as the conditions proved a large factor in developing a game plan
“It’s hard,” Montague said of playing in strong wind. “For each game, there’s a different game plan. When the wind’s at our back, we fight and go forward and put a lot of pressure. When the wind’s coming at us, we sit back and try to possess the ball.”
With a goal in each of the tournament games, Montague earned himself an Offensive Player of the Tournament award, accompanied by Cope, who was awarded Defensive Player of the Tournament.
“To be honest, I am just ecstatic for this team and these boys,” Damon said. “Myself, (assistant coach) Kylie (Stannard), (assistant coach) Ben (Pirmann), we don’t change a whole lot of coaching from year to year, so when we win these things, it’s really a tribute to the team, to the program, to the alumni, to Michigan State.”
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