The first round of the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament for Michigan State kicked off on Thursday night with a shut out victory on a snowy DeMartin Soccer Stadium field, as the Spartans beat University of Illinois-Chicago, 2-0.
This was the 19th meeting between the Spartans and the Flames in their programs' history, and their second meeting in the postseason.
Led by the three senior captains (goalkeeper Jimmy Hague, forward DeJuan Jones and defender Connor Corrigan) the Spartans battled UIC along with the weather, as the two teams were forced to play on a slippery, snow-covered field.
“It felt like I was playing in the backyard with my brothers again. It was fun, it was a great time, but obviously it was tough to play in it, but we dealt with it well,” senior forward Ryan Sierakowski said postgame about the wintery field conditions.
But the snow didn't affect the Spartans' mental approach to the match because it wasn't a surprise, according to senior forward Hunter Barone.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of experience playing in this snowy weather," Barone said. "I think that helped a lot, but honestly, we didn’t change much. We knew there was a lot of snow … we try to keep the same focus and just win — go out there and win.”
The snowy conditions called for the use of an orange ball instead of the usual white-colored ball.
First period action kicked off with a Sierakowski goal at the 5:58 minute mark from four yards out. Jones and junior midfielder and younger brother of Hunter, Giuseppe Barone, assisted on the goal, which put the Spartans up 1-0 on the Flames.
The goal by Sierakowski, who now has six goals on the season, was his first since Rutgers on Sept. 21.
“My confidence really doesn’t waver if I’m scoring or not," Sierakowski said. "Obviously it’s great to score, but going into every game I have the belief that I will and the players around me will serve the ball to me, and if I’m not scoring than I know other people will, so that brings confidence.”
UIC had more shots (11) than the Spartans (7) for the game, but MSU had a five to four advantage in shots on goal.
“It was huge," MSU coach Damon Rensing said about his teams' early scoring success. "We’ve talked about it. I think we’ve only scored four or five goals in the first half all year, so to get two in the first half was huge. I liked the fact that after we scored the first goal, we didn’t stop, we kept playing and looked for the second goal. We talked to our guys — we we’re going to play the same way until the 80th minute, whether we were up two to nothing or down two to nothing.”
The second goal Rensing referenced came from the elder Barone sibling at the 18:48 minute mark from five yards out, with Jones recording the assist for the score.
“We haven’t been scoring a lot, and the nice thing about the NCAA Tournament, it’s almost like a start over, like a new season," Barone said. "We trained hard, we worked hard on being aggressive in the box. I think all of the hard training we put in over the last week — that just showed up there.”
Hague had two saves in the first period, one from a Markell Sadler shot, the other from senior forward Max Todd, the Offensive Player of the Year for the Horizon league.
Second period action continued with the slippery field conditions, leading to a scoreless, defense-filled half.
Next up for the Spartans is a second round matchup against fourth seed Louisville at Lynn Stadium in Kentucky.
"I know they're good. You win the ACC tournament, you're good," Rensing said about the Cardinals. "Ken Lolla's been there for a long time, (he's) one of the top coaches in the business. They've got a good team. They're on a run and they don't give up a bunch of goals, so it'll be difficult."