Men’s soccer team advances to play Michigan State in NCAA Tournament



Heading into its final regular season match against Centenary College on Nov. 6, the Oakland University men’s soccer season had been marred with injuries and bad breaks, leaving the Grizzlies with a 4-10-3 overall record.

After an inspired two-week stretch of soccer, however, the team can now proudly call itself conference champions.

With a resounding 2-0 victory over rival Oral Roberts in the bitter cold Sunday, OU will now represent the Summit League in the NCAA Tournament. The Golden Grizzlies will face Michigan State in the first round Thursday at 1 p.m. in East Lansing.

To head coach Eric Pogue, the turnaround wouldn’t have happened without a return to the team’s basics.

“When we’re putting all of our pieces together — getting good goalkeeping, playing solid defense, getting good midfield play, and putting the ball in the net — I think we’re a very difficult team (to beat),” Pogue said. “I thought we were starting to get there in the final stretch of the season. Although we’ve had a lot of injuries, it seems like the next guy in line stepped up for us. That says a lot to the depth of the team this year.”

Leading the charge offensively for OU Sunday was sophomore Johnny Dreshaj and junior Jon Evans.

Summit League triumph

In the 36th minute, senior Makesi Lewis took the ball through the defense and got off a low pass to Dreshaj, who netted the game-winner.

“Tournament games are gritty and tough,” Dreshaj said. “In the Summit League Tournament, it’s just who wants it more that comes out on top.”

Dreshaj leads the team with four goals this season after scoring twice in the tournament.

Evans put the game out of reach for the Grizzlies with a goal in the 75th minute. After a crossing kick by junior Vuk Popovic, Evans gathered the ball and put it into the left corner of the net. The tally was Evans’ second of the season.

Oakland had four players selected to the All-Tournament team — Dreshaj, Evans, freshman Lucas Diener and junior goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt — with Evans winning the tournament MVP award.

Despite the award, Evans was quick to deflect any praise.

“I thought we all did a great job this weekend. We kept it very organized and communicated with each other,” he said. “I knew if I was going to make a mistake, someone would cover for me and vice-versa. I couldn’t have earned the award without my teammates.”

While he was also a factor on the offensive side, Evans, along with Diener, led the Grizzlies to a pair of stingy defensive performances over the weekend.

Oakland outscored IUPUI and ORU a combined 5-0 in the two games, giving up just four combined shots on goal in the process.

Oral Roberts had one scoring chance in the game that could have shifted momentum. In the 71st minute, ORU’s Sterling Copeland hit the post on a shot from 13 yards out, an ensuing rebound attempt also failed to find the back of the net.

“It was a good hit; he cut it clean. I don’t know if I had it covered or not but I got down and it was just close,” Hildebrandt said. “A lot of goalkeepers aren’t going to make that save. I just tried to cover it and luckily it hit the post and clanged out.”

Pogue said his team has been on the wrong end of those types of breaks all season long.

“Earlier in the year, that shot would go in,” Pogue said. “That’s the difference — we didn’t used to get those breaks … Good things happen when you work hard. Right now, some bounces are going our way and earlier in the year they weren’t.”

Besides that scoring opportunity, Hildebrandt only had to stop only one other shot on goal to record his ninth shutout of the year and second of the tournament. Last season’s Defensive Player of the Year had five shutouts in seven Summit League matches this season and 93 total saves.

Redemptive season

Coming up short in big games of past seasons and the chance to redeem those losses served as the ultimate source of motivation for both Pogue and his players in this year’s tournament.

“Last year we came in as the No. 1 seed and it was a huge disappointment. We knew how it felt (to lose) and we remembered that feeling,” Dreshaj said. “We played like it the last two games, with determination and the heart to win it.”

This is the third straight year Oakland has hosted the conference tournament. The Grizzlies were unceremoniously bounced from the tournament in the first round a year ago when expectations were very high.

“It is all about redemption,” Pogue said. “Seeing UMKC celebrate on our field last year left a bit of a bitter taste in our mouth.  They are a very good team and as you have seen, being the No. 1 seed is a difficult thing. We validated the fact that we’re not an under-.500 team, we just had some bad breaks and we’re a lot better than people think we are.”

Oakland now sets its sights on a familiar opponent in the Spartans.

Despite being knocked out of the Big Ten tournament by eventual champion Michigan, the Spartans qualified for the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid.

The Grizzlies are 3-0 all-time against MSU, including a 2-1 victory in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

“We don’t mind being an underdog and I’m sure (MSU) is going to be picked to win, but I wouldn’t want to bet against us,” Pogue said.