In a tied game, it’s the most mortifying situation for a defender in soccer — a wide open net. For junior defender Jimmy Fiscus, the open net just so happened to appear on the attacking end, but that didn’t make the situation any less frightening.
“It’s all going through your head, it’s like, ‘Oh if I miss this, everyone’s going to hate me,’” Fiscus said. “It’s just going to be your fault. I don’t think I could have missed that wide open with the head.”
Fiscus wasn’t afraid of scoring his first goal of the season — he was afraid not to. After sophomore attacker Ryan Sierakowski’s booming shot was tipped off the post by Penn State goalkeeper Evan Finney — who displaced himself and freed Fiscus from four yards out in the process of making a miraculous save — there was only one course of action for the center back.
Bowing down his head and hitting the ball into the center netting, Fiscus won MSU its f against Penn State. Although MSU had dominated the entire game, the 75th minute header finally unfettered the Spartans for the permanent lead.
“If it was with his foot, I don’t know if he would have put it in,” MSU head coach Damon Rensing said. “But Jimmy’s much better with his head, so that’s probably what was the difference for him.”
The goal and win topped off a week to remember for Fiscus, who was . Another awardee was not to be outdone, however, as Big Ten Freshman of the Year Giuseppe Barone celebrated his success with a technically proficient goal.
“We just wanted to come in as a team and play,” Barone said. “That stuff will come that doesn’t really matter right now. We’re just focused on our goal as a team right now.”
In the 19th minute of the game, Barone validated all of the praise and shed any extra pressure. On an explosive attack from MSU, Sierakowski slipped his way past two defenders for a clean shot on goal. Slightly too direct, Sierakowki’s attempt was patted away by Finney, who for the first of two times was the malefactor only through a lack of clearance.
After the ball pitched around the central box, junior midfielder Ken Krolicki finally played a controlled lay-off to Barone. Running directly onto the hit 18 yards away, Barone placed a polished, side-footed finish in the right corner.
“Kenny (Krolicki) played the ball off nice to me, and I just hit it outside of the right,” Barone said.
In the past week, eight MSU members were honored by the Big Ten for their contributions this season, including Barone and Fiscus. For all of the publicity bequeathed onto MSU players, however, the team had set its priorities straight ahead, for Penn State had defeated them 1-0 earlier in the season in a double-overtime thriller.
“Giuseppe is one of the best freshmen, not just in the Big Ten but in the country and he played again like that today,” Rensing said. “Ryan (Sierakowski) is one of the best forwards, not just in the Big Ten, but in the country, and he played like that. Guys like Kenny (Krolicki), Fiscus and Jimmy Hague — all of them stepped up. We’ve got several other guys like (Brad) Centala and (Michael) Pimlott who don’t get a bunch of accolades, but they’ve been really good... We’ve got a good team, and it’s a good group. But we’re smart enough to know that there’s a lot of other really good teams out there, and Penn State is one of them.”
After Penn State had tied the game 1-1, courtesy of a marksman free kick from leading goalscorer Connor Maloney, the Spartans knew overtime was off the table. Pushing forward, they slung 13 shots in on the day, forcing five saves from Finney. They needed to score if they wanted to extend their Big Ten season.
Just as importantly, though, MSU constricted Penn State’s opportunities. Following halftime, the Spartans allowed just one shot — part of only four total in the game.
“We were kind of iffy about the restart goal that they had,” Fiscus said. “It just drove us — defend harder, be smarter and put our lives on the line.”
In addition to the complementing vivacity with the first Big Ten Tournament game at DeMartin Stadium, the game was a bit of a replay. In last year’s Big Ten Tournament play-in, Penn State defeated MSU 2-1. The Spartans were anxious to relive a repeat.
“You’ve got two highly competitive teams,” Rensing said. “Seasons can end, so that’s difficult. There’s emotion, but, you know, you can play with that edge, you just got to be able to relax and execute too, and I thought that’s what our guys did very well.”
The advancement in the tournament strengthened MSU’s case for an NCAA playoff spot, but a Big Ten championship would seal it. As of Sunday, MSU was ranked No. 15, with a 13-4-1 overall record and a top-25 RPI.
“Thirteen (wins), I think our RPI is somewhere in the teens, those things you’ve got a good win at Notre Dame, you’ve got some other quality results ... You know, we’ll see how that all plays out,” Rensing said. “But right now, we’ll just look forward to playing the winner of Michigan and Maryland.”
The Spartans will travel out to College Park, Md. to play No. 1 Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals on Friday, with the winner advancing to the Big Ten Tournament championship. Game time is set for noon.