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Lobo soccer optimistic heading into Sunday NCAA match

UNM men’s soccer coach Jeremy Fishbein, center, talks with his players during practice last week. The Lobos face George Mason today at the UNM Soccer Complex in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

UNM men’s soccer coach Jeremy Fishbein, center, talks with his players during practice last week. The Lobos face George Mason today at the UNM Soccer Complex in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The New Mexico men’s soccer team has made qualifying for the NCAA Tournament seem routine. And so here they are again, making their 11th such trip in the past 13 seasons.

The Lobos, seeded seventh in the 48-team bracket and having earned a first-round bye, face George Mason in what could be wintry conditions today at 5 p.m. at the UNM Soccer Complex.

Only New Mexico, No. 1 seed UCLA and No. 5 Maryland hold the distinction of having earned a top 16 seed in each of the past three years.

“We’ve got an experienced group,” Lobo coach Jeremy Fishbein said. “Expectations are high, and these are the guys you want to go into battle with, that’s for sure.”

UNM (11-5-2) last hit the field on Nov. 15 when it suffered a 3-0 loss to Tulsa in the Conference USA tournament. It dropped them to No. 25 in the coaches poll.

“You’ve got to turn that into a positive,” Fishbein said. “It’s not a complete negative. You’ve got to be on your toes. Anybody can beat you on a given day. … We’re not going to take anyone for granted, that’s for sure.

“But I like where we are right now. I think we’ll be a little bit angry, have a little something to prove.”

The Lobos are led by two-time All-America defender Kyle Venter, who is making his fourth straight NCAA appearance.

“It’s just a different style of play,” Venter said, comparing this year’s UNM team to those of the past. “Different characteristics. I think this team is just as poised as all the other teams to make a deep run.”

Junior James Rogers (six goals, 17 points), senior Michael Calderon (six goals, 15 points) and sophomore Ben McKendry (four goals, nine points) are also NCAA veterans.

But it’s a guy making his tournament debut, freshman Niko Hansen (seven goals, 18 points), who leads the Lobos in scoring.

George Mason, 12-2-6 with an RPI ranking of 39, is coming off an upset at No. 22 William & Mary. The Patriots battled the Tribe to a 2-2 draw through two overtimes, then won 4-2 on penalty kicks.

The Atlantic 10 tournament champions are led by senior forward Wes Sever and sophomore forward Jannik Eckenrode, who have five goals each this season. Steffen Kraus, a 6-foot-3 freshman goalkeeper from Germany, has a 0.70 goals against average.

While the Patriots are making their first NCAA appearance since 2008, UNM will be trying to reach the Sweet 16 for the third straight season. The Lobos lost on penalty kicks at South Florida two years ago, and lost in double overtime at Connecticut last season.

But should they get past George Mason, UNM will get a Sweet 16 game at home next Sunday against either 10th-seeded and 15th-ranked UC Santa Barbara or unseeded, but 16th-ranked Penn State. The Lobos are 6-1-1 at home in NCAA Tournament games.

“I’ve tried not to look too much,” Fishbein says of the bracket. “You’re naturally going to look a little bit, but it really does us no good.”

Thinking about today’s weather, which could include snow, does no good, either.

“Who knows?” Venter said. “It’s sunny one moment and snow the next. Whatever. We’ll play the game whatever the conditions are.”

Fishbein says while he thinks some take it for granted that the Lobos will be an NCAA Tournament team, he does not.

“Expectations are high,” Fishbein said. “And our guys – it’s a competitive group – are excited to play in front of their home fans. … They want to play well for the crowd, that’s for sure. They love the people here. We need to get everybody out. Having a packed house brings a lot of energy to us.”

Fishbein expects the Patriots to “err on the side of defending and being tough. … When you get into a national tournament, you’ve got to defend first. That’s got to be our mentality.

“Our attacking players are going to get chances. It’s just a matter if they take them.

“We’ve got some special guys. We’ll see if they deliver. I think they will. I think we’ll see some of our best soccer of the year (today).”

NOTES: Both UNM and George Mason earned a Team Academic Award from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. The Lobos posted a 3.43 team grade point average for the 2012-13 academic year.

… The average UNM crowd in its last three home NCAA matches was 4,100, including 6,200 for the 2011 game with Duke.

… Eleven Lobos have played more than 1,000 minutes this season.