Giuseppe Barone, MSU soccer go from 'bubble' to Final Four doorstep
It's been quite a run of surprises for the Michigan State men's soccer team, which wasn't even sure if it was going to make the NCAA Tournament.
Then, after the Spartans got in, they reeled off three consecutive victories — including two against seeded teams — and now, stunningly, gets to host an Elite Eight game.
And, on the individual side of things, junior midfielder Giuseppe Barone learned over the weekend during a tour of the nation's Capitol following the upset win over Georgetown that he's a semifinalist for the Hermann Trophy, which goes to the nation's top player.
"I was pretty shocked when I was nominated, just because we hadn't done as well during the regular season as we would've liked. So it was really surprising in that sense," Barone said after a practice this week.
"I really didn't see it coming."
Such is the story of the season for the Spartans (13-4-4), who are one win away from the program's first trip to the Final Four, or College Cup, since the 1960s. Thanks to an upset on the other end of the bracket, Michigan State is back at home for Saturday's Elite Eight matchup with James Madison (15-4-3), set for 5 p.m. at DeMartin Stadium.
Michigan State hosted its first-round game, then figured that was it for East Lansing this year. It went to Louisville and beat the No. 4 seed, 2-1, in overtime, then went to Georgetown and beat the No. 13 seed, 1-0.
And when Jame Madison beat No. 12 Virginia Tech, 3-0, Michigan State got one more home date.
"We were a bubble team, so we sure didn't expect to play another home game after beating UIC in the first game," Barone said. "Our fans are awesome — the Red Cedar Rowdies. Win or lose, this is going to be our last home game of the year, and for our seniors, their last home game forever. So that will be something to rally around."
Michigan State began the season with high expectations, especially given its three Elite Eight runs in the previous five seasons. And things started well enough, but ended poorly, without a win in its final four games, including a loss in the Big Ten Tournament opener.
That put the Spartans on the NCAA Tournament bubble, without a clue whether the season would continue.
That made for some tense times, especially among the seniors. A players-only meeting was called, and there were some direct words spoken, especially by the captains. The message: Let's keep working. And so they did, with a week of practices, without knowing if the practices would mean a damn.
Barone said the time between the Big Ten tournament loss and the NCAA Tournament selection show was a nervous time, especially for the Spartans' 10 seniors — one of which is Barone's older brother, Hunter Barone, a forward.
"Yeah, that was tough, but credit to our coaches. We had another meeting, and they said, 'You know, we don't know if we're going to get in, but we've gotta train like we're gonna get our chance,'" the younger Barone said. "And if we did get our chance, then hopefully we'd be doing what we're doing right now.
"I think being a bubble team almost lit a fire, ignited something in us."
Giuseppe Barone, who in 2016 was the Big Ten freshman of the year, is among several standouts for the Spartans, as the Big Ten midfielder of the year. He is second in the league with 10 assists, and is second on the team with three goals.
In being nominated for the Hermann Trophy, he joins 14 others, including Michigan sophomore forward Jack Hallahan. No player from a Michigan school has ever won it.
Barone, a former East Kentwood standout in West Michigan, is part of what unofficially is the first family of Michigan State soccer — not unlike the Bulloughs in football. Giuseppe and Hunter are the third and fourth Barone brothers to play at Michigan State.
Previously, Mark and Domenic were Spartan soccer standouts. They come from quite the soccer family, with their dad, Joey, running a soccer academy in West Michigan.
Mark and Domenic Barone got their shot in the NCAA Tournament, but didn't make it as far as Giuseppe and Hunter have, now multiple times in the Elite Eight. No Michigan State team has made the Final Four since the 1960s.
This run all began after the Big Ten tournament — nobody having a clue if the players-only meeting, held in the team locker room, would be held in vain.
"That really was the turning point, we just kind of said, 'Hey, we had a lot of pressure, and now we're kind of playing with house money, so let's go do something special,'" said Giuseppe Barone, whose Spartans are hoping for good weather Saturday — and should get it, with temperatures in the 40s, albeit a chance of rain (but not snow).
"This (game) is a big step to take. We haven't been to the Final Four in 50 years, I believe. That would obviously be special.
"It would mean a lot. It really would."
NCAA Elite Eight
Who: James Madison vs. Michigan State
When: 5 p.m. Saturday, DeMartin Stadium, East Lansing
Records: James Madison 15-4-3, Michigan State 13-4-4
At stake: A berth in the Final Four, or the College Cup, set for Dec. 7-9 in Santa Barbara, Calif.