For just the second time in program history, and the first time as an at-large bid, Western Michigan men's soccer is heading to the NCAA Tournament.
The Broncos earned the No. 10 overall seed in the bracket unveiled Monday, and are joined in the 48-team field by Michigan State, the No. 7 seed, and Michigan, No 13.
All three teams earned first-round byes and will host second-round games, despite none winning their conference tournament. Western won the Mid-
American Conference regular-season championship, while Michigan was the Big Ten regular-season champion.
"It's very exciting," said senior Brandon Bye, Western's first MAC player of the year. "We knew our name would probably get called, but it's pretty surreal seeing our name being up there on the big screen.
"From the start of the season, we always talked about this."
Western (16-3-1) will play at home at 1 p.m. Sunday, against either Maryland (10-5-3) or Albany (14-4-2). A potential third-round showdown looms with Michigan State (11-3-3), which awaits the winner of Virginia Tech (9-9-0) and Air Force (14-2-3).
Michigan (12-5-2) is on the other side of the bracket, awaiting UMass (15-3-3) or Colgate (10-10-1).
A team from Michigan hasn't won the Division I NCAA soccer championship since Michigan State shared titles in 1967-68.
This is Michigan State's 20th NCAA Tournament bid, and the 19th for Michigan.
Western's NCAA history is far more limited, making it for just the second time, first since 2003. And the Broncos accomplished it with a Michigan-heavy roster. Seventeen players, or about 75 percent of the roster, are from the state. To put that in perspective, Michigan's roster includes eight players from outside the United States.
"We're fortunate in the state of Michigan, there are a lot of high-quality players in the state of Michigan," said Chad Wiseman, Western's head coach. "You've gotta stick to your roots in the recruiting process.
"We've got a group of guys that are the right fit. We only want guys here who want to Broncos. This is their first choice. This is where they want to be."
High atop that list is Bye, a Portage native who leads the team with 29 points (12 goals, five assists). Kalamazoo native Jay McIntosh has 21 points (six goals), and Linden's Ben Thornton has 12 points (four goals).
All three NCAA-bound schools have spent much of the season in the national rankings, with Western making it nine consecutive weeks, reaching No. 4 in the final rankings before the NCAA Selection Show on Monday.
Wiseman said he first started to believe this team was something special after an early-season victory at then-No. 15 Butler. For Bye, that was big, but he also cited the team's MAC opener, a win over Akron, following back-to-back losses to Portland and Michigan State.
In any event, the Broncos add to the growing list of accomplishments in the Western Michigan's athletic department. Of the six men's programs, this is the fourth to make an NCAA Tournament in the last two calendar years, joining baseball, tennis and hockey (the latter which just swept the No. 1-ranked team in the country, Denver), and that's not to mention a football team that made the New Year's Six Cotton Bowl last season, and a basketball team that won its division in the MAC last season and is a favorite to represent the MAC in the NCAA Tournament this season.
"Winning breeds winning, man," Wiseman said. "It's an exciting team in our athletic department."
The year before Bye arrived on campus, Western Michigan was a .500 team. It's been an above-.500 team every year since, with this season among the best in program history.
Two of the Broncos' three losses were to top-10 teams, including Michigan State and Akron in the MAC championship game.
When Bye, a four-sport star at Portage Northern (football, basketball, track) first committed to Western Michigan, he dreamed this day would one day be realized, but it's been a long road to get to this point.
It's been worth the wait, though.
"Definitely. It's something Coach had talked about when I was in his office as a 17-, 18-year-old," Bye said. "Talking about potentially making runs in these tournaments. To see that actually come to fruition is pretty cool.
"With any success, there's always barriers and detours along the road. We've handled those well."