EAST LANSING, Mich. — For a Michigan State team who faced some serious tough luck to round out the year, this day must have felt an eternity away. But on a dreary and cold Monday, the big moment of relief finally arrived. An opportunity at a blank page, a fresh start to put the bad bounces and misfortunes behind.
The atmosphere was festive in the coaches’ den, an area part of the sparkling new athletic offices on the fourth floor of 1855 Place. This space was home to the selection show watch party, an event held by the team to unveil its NCAA tournament opponent in grand fashion.
Players sat in quiet anticipation while eating their catered lunch, everyone’s attention on the massive television screen that would soon decide their fate. One o’clock finally rolled around, signaling selection time. As the noise in the room came to an abrupt end, the chance to start a new season was just beginning.
Cheers and celebration erupted when the announcer broke the news. MSU would play another game at DeMartin Stadium, hosting the University of Illinois at Chicago in the first round, a seemingly favorable draw. The jubilation wouldn’t last long though, as the squad quickly dialed in the emotion and regained their original tone of seriousness.
Spartans’ head coach Damon Rensing then took center stage, leading his team in a round of applause for the support staff and athletic director Bill Beekman, who also attended the event. Coach kept it brief before dismissing his team, stressing that the selection was only the start, and notifying them of their hard work that was in store.
With UIC awaiting, goaltender and senior captain Jimmy Hague took a moment to share his emotions while the team slowly filed out.
“I’m super excited, this is a big relief,” Hague admitted. “We thought we would still get in, but we’re really happy to get another chance and go out there.”
“It’s a brand-new season, we’re 0-0 right now. Any of the 48 teams can win. We’re going to give everything we have these next couple days in practice and give it our all.”
Rensing elaborated on the Spartans’ new opponent, but also took due time to reflect on how truly fortunate his team is to participate in the prestigious tournament, which MSU has made 3 times in the last four years, as well as 8 in the past 10.
“It’s a privilege, it is really hard to get into the NCAA tournament,” Rensing said. “You got 48 teams out of 206. In a conference like the Big Ten, you have to win the automatic (bid), which is really hard. So basically you have to focus on getting an at-large (bid), which is 24 out of 206. A little over 10% of Division I college teams get to play.”
The opening round contest will take place this Thursday night at DeMartin, kickoff is set for 7:00. UIC heads into the matchup with an overall record of 12-5-2 playing in the Horizon League.
“We haven’t played them recently, but we have in the past,” Rensing noted when discussing the Flames. “It’s a really good program, you got some very good technical players, they’ve won some big games, they’ve beaten Big Ten teams before. It’ll be a very good soccer game.”
In a season of bad breaks, today’s opportune draw opens a new door for potential success. To borrow a cliche, MSU “is due” for a couple favorable bounces. This team has worked hard throughout its tough schedule, and no matter the outcome, the effort and fight has always been there.
The selection committee gave the Spartans some respect with this draw, offering the traditional Big Ten power the benefit of the doubt in regards to the bad luck. Strength of schedule also played an important role, which Rensing noted.
“The conference speaks a lot, you have good teams, you win some tough games. Winning at Maryland, playing a non-conference game like Notre Dame. I think our non-conference schedule, playing South Florida, Tulsa, Akron. Those games really speak volumes to the committee.”
When it comes down to it, hard work and determination will always pay off in some form. For the Spartans, they hope their many minutes of gritty play will lead to better fortunes and tournament success.
“We just have to keep doing everything we have been doing,” Hague said. “Hopefully the ball will bounce our way.”