The New Mexico men’s soccer team approaches this evening’s festivities with its usual confidence.
“There’s a real good spirit about us,” Lobos coach Jeremy Fishbein said. “A confidence. Not an arrogance. A respect for our opponent.”
It’s not difficult to respect Penn State, New Mexico’s adversary in today’s Sweet 16 match that begins at 5 p.m. at the UNM Soccer Complex. The Nittany Lions are the regular-season Big Ten champions and are making their 31st NCAA Tournament appearance.
“Penn State is a tough team,” Fishbein said. “It’s a great program. A big-name school. Big-time conference.”
The Nittany Lions (13-5-2) entered the NCAAs unseeded, but ranked 16th in the coaches poll. They beat St. Francis 1-0 in the opening round, then knocked off No. 10 seed UC Santa Barbara 1-0 on the road to earn a trip to Albuquerque.
But the seventh-seeded Lobos (13-5-2) have become national players themselves, surfacing into the Round of 16 for the fifth time since 2004. New Mexico, Maryland and UConn are the only schools that are making a third straight trip to the Sweet 16.
But the Lobos are hoping to improve on recent results. In last year’s Sweet 16, UNM lost at Connecticut in double overtime. The year before, its Round of 16 loss came on penalty kicks at South Florida.
To survive this year’s matchup, UNM will have to win a study of styles.
“I think they’re used to playing a little bit different style,” Fishbein said of the Nittany Lions. “Midwest – a little more defensive, tougher, kind of thicker kids.
“I think our team is more dynamic. I think we have guys a little better off the dribble.”
But Fishbein warned not to underestimate his team’s toughness.
“We’re a team that can mix it up if it gets physical,” the coach said. “We’re not going to shy away from anything.”
Against UC Santa Barbara, the Nittany Lions took advantage of a red card given to the Gauchos about 5½ minutes into the game. That left UCSB short-handed for the duration.
Fishbein, whose Lobos won 1-0 at Santa Barbara in September, said the Gauchos are “incredibly talented,” but play with emotion.
“We’re a pretty grounded team,” Fishbein said. “If you move the ball quick enough, you don’t get kicked.”
Junior forward James Rogers and freshman forward Niko Hansen lead the Lobos in scoring with 19 points each. Sophomore midfielder Ben McKendry (four goals), junior defender Riley McGovern (three goals) and freshman midfielder Chris Wehan (three goals) have also contributed in the scoring column.
“We have some very talented attacking players,” Fishbein said. “And it’s going to take a special moment for one or two guys to put the ball into the net. Nothing’s going to come easy. We have to continue to defend as a team.”
The defense is anchored by senior two-time All-American Kyle Venter and junior defender Mathew Gibbons. Senior goalkeeper Michael Lisch has 39 saves and a 0.87 goals against average.
“Everything is in our hands,” Rogers said. “It depends on how much we want it, how much we’re willing to work to get it. At this point in the season, no matter how good you are, if you’re not willing to go extra steps, someone will take it from you.”
Fishbein said Penn State has “a couple of special players of their own.”
Junior forward Jordan Taylor (five goals, four game-winners) is a first-team All-Big Ten player, as is 6-foot-6 junior goalkeeper Andrew Wolverton (the league’s ‘Keeper of the Year) and senior defender Martin Seiler.
“They’re a battle-tested team,” Fishbein said of Penn State. “They’ve played lots of big games and have been extremely successful.”
The Nittany Lions are led by Bob Warming, a two-time national coach of the year. He built Creighton into a regional soccer power before joining the Nittany Lions four seasons ago. He has 428 career coaching victories.
“This is a real good team,” Fishbein said. “They’re not just going to defend; they’re going to get after you a little bit.”
Fishbein said it will be a challenge to create one-on-one matchups.
“Can our ball speed be good?” Fishbein asked. “Can our movement? And can we get them isolated, because our tactical guys are pretty good.”
NOTES: The winner of the UNM-Penn State match will face the winner of tonight’s game between No. 2 Washington and Stanford. The quarterfinals are Dec. 6-7 at the site of the higher seed.
… Washington is coached by former Lobo assistant Jamie Clark. Ex-UNM All-American Jeff Rowland is Clark’s assistant. Ex-Lobo goalkeeper Mike Graczyk is a Stanford assistant.
… UNM beat Penn State 2-0 in the 2005 season opener – the only time the schools have met. That was the season the Lobos reached the College Cup final.
… Venter is 52 minutes away from surpassing Andrew Weber on UNM’s all-time minutes played list.