Junior midfielder Brad Centala had never hoisted the Big Bear Trophy and neither had redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Jimmy Hague.
On Sunday afternoon, they were determined to fix that.
“Coming into freshman year, we had it in our locker room, and then we lost it past last two years, so it will be good to get it back,” Centala said following MSU’s 1-0 win over U-M.
U-M had mustered the last two head-to-head wins before Sunday, including the only away win in the series’ previous eight years. But in front of the largest ever DeMartin Stadium crowd, the Spartans curbed the Wolverines, winning the contentious match 1-0 off of an eighth-minute Centala goal and an unrelenting, impermeable goalkeeping display from Jimmy Hague.
“I’m certainly happy for both of them,” MSU head coach Damon Rensing said. ”(Hague) was special today. He was a big-time goalkeeper. And Centala’s been playing well. He just doesn’t get rewarded a lot with goals or assists, so to see him get the goal.
"I was happy for both of them and happy for the team. We just worked really well together as a group. It wasn’t our best performance, but in these games you just have to grind it out and do whatever it takes to get a victory.”
Early on, senior defender Dewey Lewis delivered a throw-in high and deep into the 18-yard box. Jimmy Fiscus leapt the highest, nodding on a header to Centala, well placed at the back post. Assuredly, Centala blasted the ball into the roof of the net.
“Dewey (Lewis) threw the ball in and Fiscus got a nice head-on, and I just happened to be at the right spot at the right time,” Centala said, the goal his first of a three-year collegiate career.
As the game progressed, U-M more and more commanded possession and scoring opportunities. Two great chances came on either side of halftime, with midfielders Michael Kapitula and Robbie Mertz trading bullseye crosses at each end for two open headers. Hague, however, stood tall and firm in blockading the net, catching both headers to keep the Spartans up a goal.
Centala “wasn’t sure” if the goal was going to be enough, and MSU constantly peeked at counter-attack chances, including a back-post header that could have given Centala his second goal. Yet as the game went on, the Spartans increasingly compacted into a defensive shape to protect the lead, restricting U-M to several long-range zingers.
But in the 81st minute, U-M sliced open the back line.
Sophomore forward Francis Atuahene, the leading goal-scorer for the Wolverines this year and last, was sprung free by a key through ball and galloped straight towards goal. With no defenders in sight, Hague was all that stood between the Wolverines and a leveler.
The 6’4, junior keeper charged Atuahene, meeting him right as the U-M striker poked the ball towards net. Hague slid to the ground and extended, pushing the goal-bound ball out of the danger zone.
“I just saw it, and I knew I had to cut down the angle,” Hague said, playing in his first ever Battle for Big Bear. “I just kept my body big, and I made a big save. The defense helped tremendously in this game, so I couldn’t have done it without them.”
With Hague’s save and a dramatically narrow miss in the 90th minute, the Spartans prevailed, elated and relieved. The game was a monumental victory for them.
“I’ve been waiting a while,” Hague said, having saved seven shots on the day.
In the victory, MSU’s defense recorded its third consecutive clean sheet after a disconcerting start to the year. For the Spartans, the result also marked their first time ever starting off the Big Ten season 2-0-0.
“It’s not just Jimmy Hague. It’s not just our back four. It’s all 11 players, it’s our subs, and we’re starting to gel together,” Damon Rensing said.
With the win, MSU reasserted its ownership of the series against U-M, in which the Spartans rule 31-8-6. MSU will try to stretch its Big Ten winning streak to three on Friday at Maryland, the no. 4-ranked team in the nation.
“Yeah, I heard they’re pretty good,” Rensing said sardonically following the celebration. “I guess I’ll have to start thinking about that in about five or 10 minutes here.”