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Dec 13, 2007

Buckeyes transform into serious contenders

Just over a year ago, the Ohio State men's soccer team gathered to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show. The Buckeyes had not earned an automatic bid, but with an 11-7-3 record were confident their name would be called. Forty-eight names later, it hadn't been. The team felt, as forward Andrew Magill put it, that "we kind of got gypped out of the tournament."

From that moment on, the Buckeyes were determined to make sure they would not experience similar disappointment in 2007.

"The group of returning players were very, very committed to the idea that, 'This isn't going to happen again. We're going to make sure we take care of business this year and get to the NCAA Tournament. We're not going to let it get away from us,'" coach John Bluem said. "That's what started it -- the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Going into this season, that had us properly motivated from the very beginning."

This season, the Buckeyes left nothing to chance. The team stumbled slightly through September but has been dominant since and is undefeated in its past 14 games. The efforts have culminated in an impressive postseason run that not only saw Ohio State win the Big Ten tournament but also has them headed to Cary, N.C., for the College Cup. The Buckeyes will face Massachusetts on Friday (7.30 p.m., ESPNU) for the right to play the winner of Wake Forest-Virginia Tech in the national championship game.

It hasn't been an easy process. From hours in the weight room over the winter to an increased intensity in the spring to a 4-0 win in the Elite Eight over Bradley on Sunday, everything Ohio State has done has been to get them to this weekend.

Getting through the tournament this year has been especially challenging. "When we looked at the draw, before we even started, we thought our group was the group of death," defender Eric Brunner said. "We had a high seed [No. 5], but we had a lot of powerhouse teams. Unfortunately, those powerhouse teams went out [early]. They had great seasons, but it's just been a crazy bracket. We probably were an unexpected team to go in [to the College Cup]."

That goes doubly so for the UMass team the Buckeyes (16-3-5) will face on Friday. Ohio State has learned that nothing is certain in the postseason and will take that to heart as it prepares for the Minutemen. However, after snapping Bradley's impressive streak, the Buckeyes know they are capable of stopping an underdog on an incredible run.

Following a scoreless first half, Ohio State ended the Braves' Cinderella story by scoring four goals in a 12-minute span. "They were hanging around and hanging around," Magill said of Bradley. " Once we got that goal, you could just tell, this is it."

Against Ohio State's defense -- the team ranks fourth in the nation in shutout percentage -- one goal is often all the Buckeyes need. In its past 14 games, the team has allowed just six goals, three coming in the team's Sweet 16 game against defending national champion UC Santa Barbara.

That match against the Gauchos should have answered any questions about the Buckeyes' tournament potential. Down 3-1 to the Gauchos, Ohio State battled back for a 4-3 double overtime win.

"That was the hardest game of the season," Brunner said. "But it showed the determination is there. When something is down, we're going to work twice as hard to get it back to where it needs to be."

It was just one of a number of impressive wins Ohio State has managed this year. The real turning point, according to Bluem, was the team's win over Indiana in the Big Ten tournament. The Buckeyes came into the season 2-43-1 all-time against Indiana, with one win coming in 2000 and the other in 1955. The Hoosiers also beat Ohio State in last year's Big Ten championship game, taking the conference's automatic tournament bid.

Of course, that is all history -- something Ohio State is in the process of making.

After tying the Hoosiers in the regular season, this year's Big Ten title game came down to penalty kicks. Ohio State came away with the 5-4 victory. "That was huge," Bluem said. "We've beat them once in like 50 years ... and that [win] gave the team confidence to get to where it is."

One year after missing out on the tournament altogether, the Buckeyes are making up for lost time, and that confidence might be just the boost the team needs to complete the transition from non-contender to national champion.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.