East Lansing — Michigan State senior forward Ryan Sierakowski always expected the day to come.
Sierakowski, along with the rest of the upperclassmen, thought reaching the College Cup Final Four was a goal within reach.
That mission was accomplished after Michigan State defeated James Madison, 2-1, at DeMartin Stadium last Saturday in the Elite Eight. Now, come Sunday, the Spartans could be playing for a national championship.
But it won’t be that easy. After all, the program’s last NCAA championship came in 1968. To reach the championship game, Michigan State (14-4-4) will have to get by Akron (14-6-2) on Friday (8 p.m./ESPNU).
“I think it’s easy to say that,” said Sierakowski, when asked the difference of wanting to reach a Final Four and doing it. “What’s hard is to make the sacrifices to obtain that and put in the work daily.”
The Zips beat the Spartans, 2-1, in East Lansing on Oct. 9 and are a perennial opponent of the Spartans. Coach Damon Rensing is 3-6-1 all-time against the Mid-American Conference foe, a program Rensing calls one of the greatest in the Midwest.
Akron has outscored opponents, 10-4, since the start of the NCAA Tournament and knocked off Stanford, the three-time defending NCAA champions, 3-2, on the road last Friday. The Zips have most goals of any remaining team (No. 2 Indiana and No. 11 Maryland received first-round byes).
No matter Saturday’s outcome, Rensing thinks the match won’t be anything like the one played in October.
“I think both teams are playing better than when they played that evening,” Rensing said Tuesday, a day before the team left for Santa Barbara, where the College Cup will be hosted. “They’re very good on the ball.”
Rensing said Akron’s offense remains the biggest threat. While watching the Zips’ win over Stanford, he counted 34 straight passes to set up Akron’s game-winning goal.
“They’re capable of those types of things,” Rensing said. “But we’re organized and the one thing we know is we play Akron every year.”
Leading the way on Michigan State's offense will be Sierakowski, a senior forward and the team’s leading scorer with eight goals and five assists for 21 points. Sierakowski scored both of the Spartans’ goals against James Madison in the second half, giving him seven points since the start of the tourney.
Sierakowski was scoreless in a nine-game spell leading into postseason play. Since then, Rensing is glad that his standout wing has broken out of the funk.
“I think scoring sometimes just likes to show up in spurts,” Rensing said. “You see it in all sports — hockey, even basketball with 3-point shooting. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t just bounce your way, and for a few weeks it wasn’t bouncing Ryan’s way.”
Sierakowski attributes the success to a newfound confidence.
“It’s easy to be confident when I have a team around me like I do,” he said. “... If I’m not doing it, someone around me will. I’m ready to take that responsibility and I’m ready for my chance if it comes.”
Most of Sierakowski’s supporting cast is driven by senior leadership. Giuseppe Barone and co-captain DeJuan Jones follow Sierakowski as the team’s top scorers with 16 and 15 points, respectively.
Connor Corrigan, the Big Ten midfielder of the year and co-captain, was credited with the winning assist against the Dukes for setting up Sierakowski’s with a back-heeled pass in front of the goal. The Spartans also boast a strong presence on defense.
Akron ranks fifth in the nation in total points, but the Spartans have allowed 17 goals and are 7-0 when leading at halftime. Keeper Jimmy Hague has 27 career shutouts and has been part of the program’s success all season.
“They’re a very good attacking team and they move the ball well,” defender John Freitag said of Akron. “But I think we have one of the best back lines, Jimmy (Hague) included, in the country.”
But the biggest advantage the Spartans may have is familiarity.
“We have the experience of playing against them and the confidence we can play against anyone,” Sierakowski said.
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
Casey Harrison is a freelance writer.