Michigan State converts the skeptics
The Michigan State men's soccer team has no illusions. Entering the season, the Spartans believed they were capable of contending with -- and beating -- the top teams in the Big Ten and the nation. But they also understood not everybody saw them in that same capacity.
In fact, Michigan State spent last week wreaking havoc on some of the top teams in the nation. The Spartans knocked off Indiana (2-0), No. 14 University of Illinois-Chicago (3-1) and No. 18 Michigan (1-0) in a seven-day span, sending a message to their conference and the country.
"It's kind of been a turning point for our season," senior midfielder Zac Scaffidi said. "It looks as if we're going in a different direction right now, which is a good feeling for all of us."
It shouldn't come as a huge surprise considering the team has demonstrated that it's had the pieces as the season has progressed. Senior forward Doug DeMartin entered last week leading the nation in goals per game, and now has 13 goals in as many games. Scaffidi leads the Big Ten in assists per game with six in his 11 starts.
However, there were obviously some holes as the Spartans opened the season 1-3. The biggest one appears to be filled as redshirt sophomore Avery Steinlage has taken over in goal and recorded three shutouts. Steinlage leads the Big Ten and is among the top 10 in the nation in saves per game -- and had 10 en route to shutting out the Wolverines.
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"We got off to a kind of rough start," Baum said. "But we brought up Avery Steinlage and got on a pretty good roll there. Since Avery has been in goal, we've been [7-2], and we've had wins over top-20 teams."
They've had so many wins that the Spartans might soon be ranked among those top teams. Michigan State (8-5) has won six of its past seven games and is 4-1 in the Big Ten. That includes last week's huge 2-0 win over Indiana. The victory marked just the second time the Spartans have beat the Hoosiers in the regular season and the first time since 1965.
"The Indiana game was really special," Scaffidi said. "I'm a senior, and we've played them for four years. This is our fifth time playing them, and that's my first win against Indiana.
"What makes it even more special is it's Joe's first win against Indiana in the regular season. [In total, Baum's been associated with the program as a player, assistant and head coach for 39 years.] To accomplish something like that against a top-quality program was really exciting."
Michigan State's lone conference defeat was a 1-0 loss to last year's national championship runner-up No. 22 Ohio State in its conference opener on Sept. 21. Not bad for a team picked to finish fifth out of seven.
Of course, the biggest Big Ten challenge still lies ahead. Michigan State meets No. 2 -- and still undefeated -- Northwestern on Nov. 2 in the Spartans' only remaining conference game. The Wildcats first face Michigan on Oct. 25.
"We always want to win the Big Ten conference, and the main goal for us every year is to make the NCAA tournament," DeMartin said. "We got off to a rough start with a couple losses, a couple results that maybe didn't go our way, but it seems to be turning around a little bit and things have been happening in our favor."
Part of that is due to an improved comfort level as newcomers and veterans are finally meshing. Maturity is also a factor, and the team's recent momentum helps.
"[The team's] definitely evolved a lot," DeMartin said. "We're just starting to put it all together. It's important that we're doing it right now, right in the midseason, right in the heart of our season. Hopefully, this can carry forward throughout the rest of the season as well."
Another thing the team definitely will have more of as the season progresses is national attention.
"I think we're a pretty respected program throughout the country and with the teams we play, but a few marquee wins definitely open people's eyes," Steinlage said.
We'll soon see how much. Heading into last week, Michigan State wasn't even receiving votes in the NSCAA coaches' poll. Just as the Spartans' momentum has shifted in recent weeks, expect that to change.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.