Cinderella runs in an NCAA tournament are typically made in March, but James Madison and Michigan State, set to meet at DeMartin Stadium on Saturday, are donning their glass slippers in the magical month of December.
JMU has experienced just about every storyline possible this season with a new head coach, star players getting suspended, and being hit with injuries.
On the other side of the pitch, Damon Rensing’s unit has established MSU as a perennially dangerous team, one that no opponent would like to see come November. Reaching their fourth Elite Eight in the last six years is no small feat and Rensing knows that experience can be invaluable when making a postseason run.
“It’s not like any other game,” Rensing said. “Your season can end so I think the players are playing on that nice edge where they know there’s a lot at stake but you still have to be able to relax and execute.”
And while that type of postseason experience is not something first-year head coach Paul Zazenski and the Dukes have, they are peaking at the perfect time.
After knocking off High Point University in the first round, James Madison shocked No. 5 North Carolina, putting up two goals against the Tar Heels, something no team had done all season in Raleigh. If that weren’t enough, the Dukes went into Blacksburg, Va. and throttled No. 12 Virginia Tech 3-0 to punch their ticket to the Elite Eight.
The dominance in the latest match came all without arguably the Dukes’ best player, Manuel Ferriol. Ferriol went into a silly challenge with just two minutes left against North Carolina and received a straight red and consequently was suspended for the Virginia Tech game.
Ferriol is a center midfielder by trade, although you wouldn’t guess it from the stats he puts up. He leads the team in both goals and assists, nine and five respectively. Ferriol relishes the big stage and performs at his best when in high-pressure situations. He’s tallied four goals in his last three appearances, the CAA tournament final and the first two NCAA matches.
Having to replace a player like that for any other team might be devastating, but the Dukes bring in Carter Jeffris off the bench, the man who sits just a goal behind Ferriol on the season, boasting eight goals paired with three assists, despite making just four starts.
While potent and clinical in the attacking third, James Madison is even better defensively. On their 10-1-1 run in the last 12 games, the Dukes have given up only four goals. Goalkeeper TJ Bush holds a goals against average of 0.50, good for No. 3 in the country. Bush broke the James Madison record for shutouts in a single season and continues to extend his record, now at 13 games.
A team so balanced could be a difficult task to contain, but MSU senior keeper Jimmy Hague relishes the chance.
“We know they’re a very good team. They’re physical, they defend really hard, they’ve got some good attacking guys so they’re going to be a very good team, but we’re up for the challenge.”
The run the Spartans have made is quite similar to the Dukes’, although the postseason streak for MSU has felt different. Their unexpected success has come off the back of a disappointing end to their season, with no wins in their last four outings before the NCAA tournament. But nonetheless, the Spartans are still dancing, and more importantly, they’re dancing at home.
“It’s awesome,” said senior striker Ryan Sierakowski. “We have the saying ‘Defend DeMartin’ and we played first round [at home] against UIC and didn’t really expect to be back, but crazy things happen. James Madison made a run and we’re hosting and we couldn’t be more happy.”
Along with the Red Cedar Rowdies, the “Assembly Line”, the official supporters group of newly christened Lansing Ignite, are expected to increase the noise for the Spartans at DeMartin.
The Spartans are looking to get back to the College Cup for the first time since 1968, the year they shared the title with Maryland. A year before in 1967, MSU shared the title with St. Louis, a Billikens team that employed the talents of Gary Rensing, Damon’s father.
With a win, the Dukes would make their first College Cup appearance in school history.
Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. on Saturday from DeMartin Stadium in East Lansing. The game can be seen on BTN+ or the BTN2GO app.