A season to forget. That is what could sum up this season for men’s soccer. They could write the three win year off as an outlier; And should.
But not all of it. The outcome sure, but the chip they now have on their shoulder? Use it.
Coming off a Final Four appearance in the College Cup the year prior, returning key players in senior forward Giuseppe Barone and redshirt junior defender Patrick Nielsen, there was a lot expected out of this Spartan team. They had MAC Hermann Award watchlist players in Barone and Nielsen, and other key upperclassmen like senior midfielder Michael Pimlott and senior defender Michael Wetungu.
But injuries loomed over their star players.
For over half the season they were out two captains. Those captains happened to be the ones who were supposed to carry the load, Barone and Nielsen.
Barone saw 45 minutes of playing time this season, but shut it down again after. Nielsen managed to make a return this year, but half a season wasn’t enough to give the Spartans a hope of repeat from last season.
The Spartans' injury-ridden season, where one-goal losses and draws littered their stat sheet was put to an end when they were knocked off by Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament to end their season.
They should be upset with the season. They should be pissed. As a team, they didn’t live up to expectations and had held themselves to a far different standard in years past. They should write it off.
The Spartan Soccer program is far better than the showing they put on display this year. Head Coach Damon Rensing and Co. know that this wasn’t a good season and that, on paper, they needed to put together a better one.
But they can’t beat themselves up too hard. Especially given the circumstances.
Injuries and inexperience tainted the Spartan lineup, both in and out, and they still managed to keep themselves in, game after game.
And once the sting of the losses withers away, injuries turn to soreness, soreness turns back into healthy legs and the early end of the season turns into training for a new one, Rensing will be able to go back to the drawing board and realize he did get something out of this year.
Two things actually. Experience and a chip.
21 players from this year’s roster are set to return next season, nine of which started in the Spartans last game of the year.
With injuries to their upperclassmen, Rensing was forced to play his underclassmen a little more than he might have liked. In the growing pains, freshman saw minutes, sophomores became stars, leaders emerged and the inexperienced became comfortable.
Perhaps most notable, sophomore’s Farai Mutatu, Alex Shterenberg, Hunter Morse and freshman Nick Stone.
Mutatu stepped up big time throughout the season, scoring two goals and earning his first Player of the Week award, while seeing a significant jump in minutes compared to last year.
Shterenberg had waited for his opportunity for two years, being a redshirt sophomore, but when injuries took down the other forwards, Shterenberg made the most of it. Scoring his first goal, and the team's first of the season, breaking a nine-half dry spout, and immediately making an impact as a vocal leader, helping shape the team into a disciplined and focused group.
While the Spartans had trouble finding the net this season, they didn’t have as much keeping opponents out of it. A lot of that is thanks to the redshirt sophomore Hunter Morse. Morse kept every game close at the goal. After seeing less than 15 minutes in the 2018 season, the goalkeeper started every game this season and with it, logged 75 saves.
Freshman defender Nick Stone was a utility for Rensing this season. A player who was moved around a lot this season, Rensing said that he was someone he could throw anywhere. The freshman earned valuable experience this season, starting the last 13 games and setting Rensing up with another comfortable starter for next season.
The experience these players earned, and the potential that All-Big Ten Second Team selection Patrick Nielsen brings if he returns, should set the Spartans up to leave last year's record in the dust.
The chip they can wear on their shoulder from this season will be valuable too. Rensing will have players that know what it’s like to lose with high expectations.
With a chip on their shoulder and the experience they gained from having to start a lineup of players in development, the Spartans should be able to rewrite the script and turn this season into a motive for the next.