Spartans start Big Ten play with a goal of earning a spot in the NCAA

EAST LANSING — Prior to their win over 19th-ranked Colorado on Sept. 11, it had been almost six years since the Michigan State women’s soccer team had defeated a ranked opponent.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the result was how dominant the Spartans were.

MSU’s 4-2 win included a massive shooting lead (25-10) and the Spartans nearly doubled Colorado in shots on goal (13-7). For a program still in the early stages of its second season under coach Jeff Hosler, the game couldn’t have gone any better.

“I felt it was a really thorough performance on both sides of the ball, except for the first few minutes after the (weather) delay and the last 30 seconds of the game,” Hösler said on Thursday. “So you take away those chunks, and I thought it was as complete a performance as one could hope for. But those moments happened and it gives us something – with all the confidence we have – to bring the group back together and narrow our focus.”

The star of the game was Camryn Evans, a fifth-year Spartan senior who scored the first hat-trick of her career — and the first by an MSU player since Gia Wahlberg scored four goals against Marshall in 2019. Four days after completing the feat, Evans wanted to take little credit.

“Obviously I couldn’t have done this without these girls around me,” she said. “I think it gave me a little bit more confidence that we can do so many big things. Coming to our house like a ranked team and then betting four goals on them is just plain ridiculous in and of itself. And then if we push this forward, (we feel) we can do this to anyone.

That’s exactly what Hösler wanted to hear.

As notable as the win was — it helped MSU finish the game 5-1-2 outside of conference — it was another game this season that he saw as most important to the team’s growth. And ironically, it’s the Spartans’ only loss – a 1-0 setback in Arkansas on September 4th.

“We would have liked to see a different result in Arkansas, but it’s an incredibly difficult place,” Hosler said of the three-time SEC regular-season champion and a roster with a 14-home win streak. “Not many people take up the challenge of playing there, so I’m excited.”

Michigan State Coach Jeff Hosler is leading the program in his sophomore season.

Losing by just one goal — which came in the 77th minute — to a perennial powerhouse convinced the Michigan State players they could compete with “anyone, anywhere,” Hosler said.

“They never backed down,” Hosler said. “I think we brought them the fight and the toughness for a lot of the game,”

What the Spartans didn’t do in that loss was a problem they corrected against the Buffaloes.

“That (Arkansas) came down to a play of inches and unfortunately they played through the chance they had,” Evans said. “We had a few that we just couldn’t put away. So that was a pretty tough lesson that you just have to finish when you get the chance.”

Now that MSU is set to play the Big Ten this weekend, it’s hoping to ride that wave of momentum all season long.

FROM 2021: Jeff Hosler’s year-long turnaround steered Michigan State women’s soccer in the right direction

RECOGNITION: Laura Heyboer became the first women’s soccer player to be inducted into the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame last week

Michigan State's Camryn Evans dodges Colorado's goalie during Sunday's game at DeMartin Stadium.  Evans scored three goals in the Spartans' 4-2 win.

Spartans are always aware of the “underdog map”.

Michigan State will open its Illinois conference table at 2:00 p.m. Sunday. The Illini go into the season with a 5-2-1 record and a 1-1 record against ranked teams. You then topped-no. 17 Butler, 1-0, on August 25 before losing to then-No. 17 by the same score. 18 Texas A&M on September 1st. Illinois, Hosler said, needs no introduction.

Legendary Illini coach Janet Rayfield is leading the program in her 21st season with 213 wins, including 100 in the league. She has coached six players who went on to win the conference’s Player of the Year award. The Illini has 10 NCAA tournament appearances on her watch and has made the Sweet 16 four times.

You won’t make it easy for the Spartans.

“Illinois is a team that likes to stretch the field and get you to cover ground,” Hosler said. “And if you make the wrong decision – because of the way they’re spread out – they can get to goal pretty quickly. You get numbers, benefits. They have some really good ball strikers in the middle of the park. … It’s a team that will always be well trained. She’s a legend for a reason. You will be prepared.

MSU must prepare for a slugfest.

“It will be a difficult game. It’s going to be tough,” Evans said. “Big Ten games are always tough. They’re going to give us a good, good fight for sure.”

It’s the kind of game the Spartans need to win to prove predictions wrong. In the Big Ten preseason poll, the league’s coaches predicted that MSU would finish sixth. A year after ending the regular season in fourth place in the conference standings, some might see the preseason poll as a show of disrespect. But Hösler was not offended. Achieving a high preseason finish, he said, typically comes after a team has demonstrated year after year that it’s in the mix for regular-season titles and NCAA tournament competition.

Also, it’s natural for the Spartans to be picked two spots down from last year.

“This is a group that really played on the underdog card a year ago,” Hösler said. “I think they’re always aware of that, that piece of it. And I think it’s a group that’s hungry to win the respect not just of the conference but of the country.”

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Michigan State players huddle together during Sunday's game against Colorado.  The Spartans used last year's NCAA tournament nudge as motivation for the offseason.

Aim for NCAAs

Throughout the offseason, MSU used last year’s NCAA breach as motivation. After 10-5-3 overall and 5-4-1 in the Big Ten, the Spartans earned the right to host a quarterfinal matchup in the conference tournament. It was a remarkable achievement on several levels. It was MSU’s first tournament appearance since 2011. And it was the first time the Spartans had hosted a league tournament since 2002.

But the run was short-lived.

MSU went one and done, losing 0-1 to fifth-seeded Iowa. However, on the eve of the NCAA selection show, Evans was still confident. She thought MSU had done enough to get a general offer. But the selection show came and went without “Michigan State” flashing across the screen.

It was a bitter pill to swallow.

“Missing it and having to watch teams (that we beat) get their name was just something I think that really motivated all of our returning players,” she said. We say, “We’re going around this one year to get there.'”

If the Spartans do end an NCAA drought stretching back to 2009, it won’t be because Hosler pressured them. As close as they came to punching a ticket last season, he refused to turn the 2022 campaign into a “tournament-or-bust” endeavor.

“Because that’s out of our control,” he said. “What we control is how hard we play, how well we perform and (try) to get those results individually.”

Contact Ryan Black at rblack@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanABlack.

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