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The margin for error in soccer can often be so slim.

Early in the season, Michigan State's men's team was winning most of the close ones, but late in the season, it couldn't find a break — and went winless over its final four games, including a 1-0 loss in the Big Ten tournament opener against Maryland.

Turns out for the Spartans, that skid, and that last loss in particular, might've been just what the doctor ordered.

"Losing to Maryland might've been a blessing," coach Damon Rensing said. "That gave us 10 days to kind of reorganize, and almost have another preseason and get ready for another season.

"That ended up preparing us for this run."

NCAA TOURNAMENT BRACKET

The "other" season is going swimmingly, as the Spartans won at No. 13 Georgetown, 1-0, on Sunday afternoon to advance to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight. That's the second upset Michigan State has pulled this postseason, following last round's 2-1 overtime victory at fourth-seeded Louisville.

The Spartans now are in the Elite Eight for the fourth time in six years, after sophomore midfielder Michael Miller picked a fine time to score his first collegiate goal — late in Sunday's opening half.

Michigan State's defense held serve again in the second half, particularly in the waning moments, when Georgetown turned up the heat and All-America candidate Jimmy Hague, a redshirt senior from Walled Lake Western, made one terrific stop in goal.

"For this current team of juniors and seniors, to go to back-to-back Elite Eights says a lot about their ability and leadership. And four Elite Eights in the last six years, that speaks more to the program," said Rensing, whose taken the Spartans to eight NCAA Tournaments in his 10 years as coach.

"Coach (Tom) Izzo used to say if you get there a couple times, you've got a team, but our goal is try to develop a program.

"I think we're starting to establish that."

The next step, of course, is making the Final Four — or the College Cup, in soccer.

Rensing's teams haven't gotten to that level yet, falling in each of their three previous trips to the Elite Eight, including in a 1-1, penalty-kicks loss last year to Indiana.

Michigan State hasn't been to the Final Four since 1967-68, when it won consecutive co-national championships.

Standing in the Spartans' way of a trip to the College Cup, set for Dec. 7-9 in Santa Barbara, Calif., will be James Madison, a 3-0 winner over Virginia Tech on Sunday in Blacksburg, Va. The Michigan State-James Madison match is scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday, at DeMartin Soccer Stadium in East Lansing.

"It would be huge," Rensing said of a possible College Cup berth. "It's been a goal for these guys. We haven't been back there since the late '60s.

"It's been one of the goals. And I give our guys credit. The last four games of the year, we didn't win, and that goal seemed (far away). But they've righted the ship."

Michigan State (13-4-4) is one of three Big Ten teams in the Elite Eight, along with Indiana and Maryland. Those were the last two teams the Spartans lost to, in the last two games of the season — the regular-season finale, and the Big Ten tournament opener. Before that, the Spartans tied Michigan and Northwestern.

Sunday's game was moved from the Georgetown grass soccer field to the football team's turf facility, because of two inches of overnight rain.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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