Soccer star Jones feels right at home at MSU

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Prime-time college soccer programs don’t typically feature rosters loaded up with local talent.

And they almost certainly never have talent THIS local.

Meet DeJuan Jones, who played his prep games at East Lansing High School, and now plays his college games 1.2 miles away — a quick trip down Burcham, over to Abbot, across Grand River and onto campus, where at 6 Saturday night, the stands at DeMartin Soccer Complex are going to be filled with a whole lot of familiar faces as Michigan State hosts Western Michigan in the NCAA Tournament.

This is what Jones dreamed of since he was a kid, always wanting to wear the green and white.

“Michigan State was always my top choice,” he said this week. “Michigan State was THE option.”

The two years before Jones arrived at Michigan State, the Spartans reached the Elite Eight. Now he’s got a chance to get there, too, as the winner of Saturday’s intriguing, in-state showdown is for a spot in the national quarterfinals.

Western Michigan’s never been to that point; it earned its first NCAA Tournament victory last weekend. Michigan State’s history is far richer, with 18 appearances and two co-national championships.

The teams met earlier this season, a 1-0 Michigan State win in Kalamazoo in October.

“I played against a lot of those guys in my club days, it’s an in-state rivalry,” Jones said. “We know Western’s gonna be a team where we have to play for 90 minutes. Keep attacking. We’ve gotta be strong defensively, and have some magic on the offensive end.”

Several schools recruited Jones, of course. He was Mr. Soccer in Michigan his senior year, after all. One of them was Western Michigan. There was Loyola Chicago. There were a couple of other Big Ten schools.

But Michigan State was home, and while a lot of high-school kids are itching to move as many miles as possible from the family nest, as soon as possible, that never was Jones’ thinking.

He likes that his parents come to games, as well as his sisters, one who lives in Lansing, the other in Ann Arbor, and his niece.

During pregame introductions, there’s always an extra roar from the crowd when Jones’ name is announced.

“I think it’s really neat,” head coach Damon Rensing said. “You’ve got a community that really likes him, he does a lot of community service, he wants to be an elementary-education teacher. When you have that kind of connection, the community rallies around you.”

Of course, it helps when you’re a darn good player.

Jones, a 5-foot-8, 166-pound forward, has 19 points, tied for the team lead with Ryan Sierakowski. His seven goals are second to Sierakowski. His five assists are tied for second with Michael Pimlott, behind Connor Corrigan.

Those numbers are way up for Jones, who had only 11 points, total, his first two seasons — his freshman year, Michigan State didn’t make the NCAA Tournament; his sophomore season, last year, it made it, but lost its opener to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in a shootout.

Jones attributes his improved play to continued developing confidence and becoming more familiar and comfortable in Rensing’s system.

Michigan State (12-3-3) knew it had a chance to be good this year, having lost only two starters from last year’s team. And it more than held its own in a stacked Big Ten Conference, which put five teams in the NCAA Tournament, and still has three remaining. The Spartans are ranked 14th in the country, actually behind Western Michigan (fourth). But the Selection Committee saw things differently, which is why Michigan State is hosting Saturday.

You better believe that’s just fine with Jones, who knows he’ll have friends and family looking on, even on a holiday weekend.

“When we saw that side of the bracket, we got excited that both teams made it,” Jones said, adding the Spartans didn’t look past first foe Virginia Tech in a 3-0 victory — but still liked seeing the Broncos over there, given a lot of these kids grew up playing each other.

“Hopefully it’s gonna be a good-sized crowd, even on Thanksgiving weekend.”

NCAA Soccer Tournament

No. 10 seed Western Michigan at No. 7 seed Michigan State

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Where: DeMartin Soccer Complex, East Lansing

Records: Western Michigan 17-3-1, Michigan State 12-3-3

Last meeting: Michigan State won, 1-0, on Oct. 4 in Kalamazoo

At stake: A spot in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, against either No. 2 seed Indiana or unseeded New Hampshire

Notables: Western Michigan earned its first-ever NCAA Tournament win, 2-0 over Albany in a second-round game (it received an opening bye). ... Michigan State, which also received an opening bye, beat Virginia Tech, 3-0, and is looking for its first trip to the Elite Eight since 2015. ... Western Michigan actually is ranked higher by the United Soccer Coaches (4 to 14), and in the RPI (8 to 12), but Michigan State received the better seed from the Selection Committee, which is why it’s hosting the game. … Michigan State goalie Jimmy Hague has 11 shutouts in 18 games, and owns a 0.59 goals-against average.