Last year wasn’t easy for MSU head men’s soccer coach Damon Rensing, eighth-year head coach of the MSU men’s soccer team. With a career record of 88-56-30, five NCAA Tournament appearances and consecutive Elite Eight entries in 2013 and 2014, Rensing’s legacy with the team has been one of overall accomplishment, making last season’s 1-5 streak to finish the year all the more humbling.
In 2016, the Spartans have rebuilt, defeating Northwestern during the weekend to claim an 11-3-1 record. The same young players who received a shattering baptism into their collegiate campaigns when called upon last year are now experienced sophomores and juniors who understand the rigors of a full college season.
“Last year was a hard year for all of us,” sophomore forward Hunter Barone said after the Spartans defeated Akron. “We were all so used to, in our clubs, just winning a lot of games. ... This year in the spring, we worked out hard, and we always just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to come back next year with fire and have that edge.’ I think last year maybe helped us a little bit to come back this year stronger.”
After a 2-1 victory over the Zips on Oct. 11, with still five regular season games remaining, the 2016 iteration of MSU men’s soccer hitched its ninth win of the season to overtake 2015 points and wins totals.
“It’s just a maturation process, I mean, there’s a lot of the same players,” Rensing said following the win. “We played a lot of good games last year. We just didn’t find ways to win these games.”
After Akron, however, MSU suffered a setback against Penn State with an overtime loss in a 1-0 away thriller. Yet again, the team treaded water and burst back into a winning stroke the next game against Yale.
“I’d rather work on stuff as we continue to get better throughout the end of the year with a win,” Rensing said. “I don’t think there’s ever been an issue of work rate with this team (this season). They always come out and work hard. They put their bodies on the line. They do everything we ask.”
The touted chemistry and experience have shone brightly with MSU’s current squad following adversity or failure. All four occasions proceeding losses or draws, the Spartans have refocused and won the bounce-back game.
“They don’t change much, they just do what we do,” Rensing said. “In soccer, that goes well. We don’t get too high when we’re up. I don’t think we get too down when we’re down, we’re losing, and I think this college season is crazy and comes fast and furious.”
In the heart of the soccer season, games are one after another and can build or break a team. The middle of the season can stuff two to three games into a week.
As the 2015 season progressed, the Spartans slipped with their stamina, only to fall into an inescapable pit of bad form. In 2016, the opposite has occurred.
“I think especially last season, we struggled in our midweek games,” junior defender Jimmy Fiscus said. “We have a good character, ever since the beginning of the season whether it was a preseason game beating Clemson, or coming back from losing — from SMU or Columbia — and being down 2-1, I think we just have that drive to win.
“Last season was really tough on us, and the senior guys are really good at leading the team and getting ready for the next game — letting the losses get behind and not letting the wins get us too high,” Fiscus said.
MSU’s team is young, with only two seniors heading the pack. The profuseness of youth has not only forced the veteran members to step up, but it has extracted top leadership qualities from players, both new and old, who didn’t want to see the team relapse into last year’s bad habits.
“We have a lot of experienced guys from last year,” junior attacking midfielder Ken Krolicki said. “We have new guys who are influencing the game a lot, so I think the combination of both is helping us a lot.”
Players of the week
This season, MSU has had three Big Ten Player of the Week honorees. First, Krolicki garnered the offensive player accolade following a splendid run of form in September. Next up, redshirt-sophomore goalkeeper Jimmy Hague claimed the defensive prize for two consecutive shutouts. The following week, sophomore forward DeJuan Jones was awarded the offensive player of the week for his efforts against Wisconsin and Western Michigan University.
Excluded from that list is sophomore forward Ryan Sierakowski, who was named to the College Soccer News National Team of the Week in early October. Although Sierakowski honed his goal-scoring capabilities last season, leading the Spartans in that category with seven throughout the year, in six fewer games he has already matched that effort.
“Out of all the team sports, this is the one that truly embodies teamwork,” redshirt-senior Andrew Herr said. “Eleven guys working towards a common goal to win a game is something that we pride ourselves on, and for everyone to step up like that and fulfill a role for the team, it’s huge.”
Herr himself scored his first career goal in Oct. 19 2-0 victory over Yale. The game against the Bulldogs was emblematic of the team’s togetherness and progression throughout the year. Although the Spartans, by Rensing’s calculations, did not play to their full potential, they still snuck away with their 10th win of the season.
To the playoffs?
Boasting 11 wins and currently poised to secure a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament, the freshmen and sophomores on the team are in a new position — playoff potential. MSU currently is ranked No. 20 in the nation, and barring an unforeseen drop-off in the final games of the season, would likely gain admittance into the NCAA Tournament again.
“Last year, we didn’t have a good season,” Krolicki, who scored the second goal against Yale, said. “But this year, we knew we could be a great team. Not losing back-to-back is huge for us in terms of the NCAA Tournament.”
Krolicki journeyed all the way to the Elite Eight in his freshman year and has yet to return the postseason action. Last year, MSU (8-9-2, 2-4-2 Big Ten) barely placed in the top eight of the Big Ten to qualify for the conference tournament, in which they were eliminated in the first round by Penn State.
Rensing said it’s not difficult for him to manage the excitement and expectations at this time of the year, though. Each opponent poses too much of a test to think further down the line.
As a redshirt-senior, however, Herr has already contemplated what it will be like to walk off the field of DeMartin Soccer Stadium for the final time. It’s an experience he wants to cling to, and he is determined to clinch a few postseason home games.
“I get to play four and a half years on this field,” Herr said. “Every time, coming out here and battling with my brothers is one of the greatest things ever, so it’s definitely something I’m going to miss. But hopefully we can get a couple of postseason games here, you know maybe three, four more games.”