East Lansing — It’s taken Damon Rensing his entire career for this moment.
As a player for Michigan State in the mid-1990s, he was never able to do it. As head coach of the Spartans, he had never been able to lift his team over the hump.
Rensing has taken MSU to the Elite Eight three times in the last five seasons, but never any further. That changed Saturday night with a 2-1 win over James Madison at a cold, rainy, but energized DeMartin Stadium to push the Spartans (14-4-4) to their first College Cup semifinals since 1968.
“That took everything we possibly had to win this game,” Rensing said, trying to hold back tears. “... I’m just so proud of this team. I’ve said this a couple times already — as coaches we just kind of do the same thing every year: we facilitate, we run the same training sessions, (but) it’s the players that make the end result and it’s the players that determine what their season is going to be like.”
Despite dominating ball control for most of the first half, the Spartans fell behind after Niclas Mohr’s 32nd-minute goal and first of the season, to give the Dukes a 1-0 lead. Mohr dribbled down the field and passed to Carson Jeffris just outside the top of the 18-yard box.
Mohr got the ball back from Jeffris, who attempted to pass back inside the box. A defender blocked the pass, which went right back to Mohr, who sent the ball past a diving Jimmy Hague, MSU’s goalkeeper, off the right post and into the net.
The loss eliminates JMU (15-5-3) from title contention but marks the Colonial Athletic Association affiliate's third Elite Eight appearance, first since ‘95.
“We proved a heck of a lot of people wrong,” said Dukes keeper TJ Bush, who finished with four saves. “I think that was ultimately our goal. We kept seeing the score predictions and it wasn’t going our way, but we just kept on winning.”
The Spartans remained scoreless until Ryan Sierakowski’s 72nd-minute equalizer on a quick pass from forward Farai Mutatu outside the top of the keeper’s box. Mutatu was served a pass from midfielder Robbie Cort, who was also credited an assist. The converted goal was the first on MSU’s eight shots and Sierakowski’s first score since the Spartans’ 2-0 win against Illinois-Chicago on Nov. 15, in the first round.
“I was in the right spot at the right time and found a corner,” Sierakowski said.
Sierakowski scored again in the 81st minute off a back-heeled pass from Connor Corrigan in front of the goal to give the Spartans a 2-1 lead — MSU’s first of the match. A strong defensive outing the rest of the half secured the win.
“I thought our guys showed great resilience,” Rensing said. “We talked about being patient: we had 45 minutes to score. We thought if we got one (goal) the second would come.”
The Spartans are one of three Big Ten opponents to make up the Final Four, joining No. 2 Indiana and No. 11 Maryland, who defeated Notre Dame and Kentucky on Friday, respectively.
MSU will play Akron next Friday (8 p.m. ET) for a chance to advance to the program’s first National Championship since 1968. The Zips defeated the Spartans 2-1 in East Lansing on Oct. 8. Rensing is 3-6-1 all-time against the MAC opponent.
The Spartans fell 1-0 in overtime against the Hoosiers on Oct. 28 and went 1-1 against the Terrapins with a 2-0 victory at College Park, Maryland, and a 1-0 overtime loss in the Big Ten Tournament.
But all that goes out to door. Anything can happen in postseason play, and the Spartans are just going to take it one game at a time.
“It's unbelievable. This has been a goal of ours since I got here,” Sierakowski, a senior said. “This is what we’ve played for, been grinding for and to do in front of a (home) crowd like that was unbelievable. I couldn’t have dreamt it up any better.”
Crowd gets rowdy
In the 37th minute, a disgruntled member of the crowd threw a snowball onto the field near the feet of Mohr, prompting officials to momentarily stop the match. After a brief meeting, the referees ordered the second section of the stands from the MSU end of the field to leave the complex.
Mohr was understanding of the emotion of the crowd, 1,758 strong, even given the name of MSU’s student section, the Red Cedar Rowdies.
“You try to just focus on the game,” Mohr said. “You always hear something in the background, but you have to be so professional and ignore it and try to focus on the game. But, to be honest, it was a big crowd and it was nice to play in (front of) such an amount of people.”
Casey Harrison is a freelance writer.
In Santa Barbara, Calif.; all games televised on ESPNU
■ Michigan State (14-4-4) vs. Akron (14-6-2), 8 Friday
■ No. 2 Indiana (20-2-1) vs. No. 11 Maryland (11-6-4), 10:30 Friday
■ 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9