Aug. 27, 2009
Coming off its second Big Ten tournament championship since 2004, its first Big Ten regular season title in school history, and NCAA Tournament bids in each of the last two seasons, the Michigan State Spartans enter the 2009 campaign as one of the nation’s rising soccer programs. MSU will look to build on its successes of a season ago as the program finds itself in a new position for the first time in over 30 years. 2009 marks the first time since 1977 that there will be a new head coach roaming the Spartan sideline as Damon Rensing has assumed the reins as head coach from the legendary Joe Baum who retired after last season. Rensing, a former Spartan player, has assisted Baum for the past 10 seasons and will now guide the program that he and Baum helped successfully build over the last several seasons.
Rensing will still count on Baum’s knowledge and experience as he will remain on staff as an assistant coach.
“It is great having Joe around to bounce ideas off,” said Rensing. “I’m grateful to have made this transition in January because it’s given me a full nine months prior to actually starting the season. Having the spring season and summer for everyone involved has made for a really smooth transition.”
The Spartans’ success in 2008 was keyed largely by a core group of outstanding seniors. Led by All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year, Doug DeMartin, and fellow starters Zac Scaffidi, Louis Stephens, Josh Rogers and Dave Hertel – MSU heavily relied on its senior class at both ends of the field. This season, MSU will count on a pair of experienced juniors in Spencer Thompson and Jeff Ricondo to spark the Spartan offense.
“The two players compliment each other very well,” said Rensing. “Jeff has a knack for scoring big goals and he wants to be the guy to step up. Spencer is very good at setting up goals and is very clever in the final third.”
Thompson and Ricondo each started all 20 games in 2008 and are the leading returning scorers as each had 10 points last season. Thompson, who chipped in two goals and two assists as a true freshman in 2007, has started every game in which he has appeared (39) in his career. Ricondo’s experience is also something the Spartans will count on as he has appeared in 41 games, which is the second most of anyone one the team.
The lone senior on this year’s squad is forward Tim Granaderos. The speedy forward made one start and appeared in all 19 other games as a reserve last season, providing a spark to the Spartan offense. Granaderos has demonstrated the knack for making big plays as he scored the lone goal in MSU’s 1-0 win at Michigan last season.
“Tim will play a very important role this season,” explained Rensing. “He had a great spring.”
MSU will also look to a pair of sophomores who provided significant contributions a season ago. Cyrus Saydee and Domenic Barone each played in all 20 games as freshmen and gave the Spartans significant minutes in every game.
“Domenic and Cyrus played big minutes in all types of situations last season so we will look to them for more this season,” said Rensing. “Mark Barone had a very good spring so we’re expecting contributions from him as well.”
Junior defender Nosa Iyoha joins Thompson and Ricondo as the only other returning Spartan to have started all 20 games last season. Iyoha’s presence and poise on the backline will be the key to stifling opponents’ offensive attacks.
“Nosa is good athletically, tactically and is a good competitor,” Rensing said. “Not many players have all three qualities. He was key to our success last season and was an unsung hero.”
Fellow junior Colin Givens also provides MSU with needed defensive experience. Last season, Givens started the first 11 games of the year before suffering an injury that sidelined him for all but one of the Spartans’ remaining games.
Another junior with significant experience, Jake Fullerton, will join Givens on the Spartans’ backline.
Perhaps the position in which the Spartans are strongest this season will be between the pipes as redshirt junior goalkeeper Avery Steinlage returns. Steinlage started the final 16 games of the 2008 campaign and posted a 0.50 GAA en route to earning First-Team All-Big Ten honors. He led the NCAA in save percentage at 0.925 and ended the season with 10 shutouts and a live action shutout streak of over 800 minutes. His back-to-back shutouts in wins over Northwestern and Indiana in the Big Ten Championship earned him Defensive Player of the Championship honors.
“It’s certainly great to have Avery back in goal,” said Rensing. “He made some big saves in some big games last season so we are hoping he can be as consistent this season. Jeremy Clark and Joe Gregus each had great springs as well so we are very deep at the goalkeeper position.”
Clark, a sophomore, started the first four games of ’08.
Headlining the freshman class is defender Kevin Cope. As a senior at Plymouth Salem in 2008, Cope became just the third defender to win the Michigan Mr. Soccer award. He also earned NSCAA All-America honors and was a three-time all-state honoree.
The defending Big Ten Champions will open the 2009 campaign at DeMartin Stadium on Sept. 4 versus Duquesne and will then hit the road for five consecutive road games. MSU will take on seven teams that participated in last year's NCAA Championship, including: UIC, Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Notre Dame, Akron and Northwestern.
“It is one of our most competitive schedules and very similar to last year,” said Rensing. “The quality of our non-conference schedule last year helped us identify where we were as a team early in the season and certainly assisted us in preparing for the always difficult Big Ten season.”