The Michigan State men's soccer team couldn't have scripted it any better. Playing in the final regular-season game for head coach Joe Baum, the No. 25 Spartans defeated sixth-ranked Northwestern, 1-0, to win the school's first regular-season Big Ten championship in front of over 2,800 Sunday (Nov. 2) afternoon at DeMartin Stadium. Baum, who will retire after this season - his 32nd as head coach - now adds a regular season Big Ten title to the conference tournament championship he won in 2004.
"I thought it was a great game," Baum said. "Northwestern is obviously a great team. I thought it was going to come down to one big play and Louis (Stephens) comes up and makes a big play."
With emotions on both sides running high, it was Northwestern that got the upper hand early by pressuring the Spartan defense that resulted in three Wildcat corner kicks within the first 6:15 of the game.
MSU goalkeeper Avery Steinlage proved equal to each Northwestern challenge, as he made four saves in the first half.
Once the Spartans settled in, their offense responded and strung together a few quality scoring chances. After a shot by senior David Hertel just caught the far post, a header by Zac Scaffidi minutes later narrowly missed the net.
Hertel again nearly gave MSU the lead in the 37th minute, this time his shot from the right side hit the near post and ricocheted wide.
The two teams finished the first half scoreless with six shots a piece.
The Spartans pressured the Wildcats to start the second half with three shots in the first five minutes.
All of MSU's offensive chances finally paid off in the 55th minute when the Big Ten scoring-leader Doug DeMartin dribbled down the right side and fired the ball on net. Northwestern goalkeeper Misha Rosenthal made the save, but fellow senior Louis Stephens III collected it and knocked it in just past the reach of Rosenthal. The goal was Stephens' fourth of the season.
"I had a really tough angle and couldn't see anything so I just ripped a shot and Louis was able to get the rebound and put it in," DeMartin said. "He was pretty dominant all game and very active."
DeMartin nearly gave MSU an insurance marker in the 67th minute when a header off a corner kick by Ben Pirmann was stopped by Rosenthal.
MSU's defense hung tough from then on, surrendering just five shots in the final 35 minutes of play. As he has been all season, Steinlage was a force in net for the Green and White, making key saves down the stretch. He made seven saves in the game and has now surrendered just four goals in six Big Ten matches.
"(Those last few minutes) I was just saying `Please, let's hold on' because I could already feel the excitement," said Baum. "I was just hoping we could just hold on and play some good defense and sure enough, we were able to do it."
MSU soccer alumni from several eras were on hand to witness the historic win.
"When I looked up (into the stands) and saw all those past players, it was breathtaking and I'm very, very greatful," Baum said. "It almost feels like an extended family and we preach that you're with us forever, so, to have all these guys come back from all over is really meaningful."
The Spartans (11-5-1, 5-1) will have the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which will take place Nov. 13-16 in Madison, Wis.