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UNM men’s soccer: Lobos off to Final Four

UNM’s Ben McKendry (6) looks to pass while being defended by Washington’s Michael Harris during Saturday’s NCAA Tournament match. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

UNM’s Ben McKendry (6) looks to pass while being defended by Washington’s Michael Harris during Saturday’s NCAA Tournament match. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

SEATTLE – Down to the cleats on their feet, the New Mexico men’s soccer team came prepared from the beginning.

Facing 25-degree temperatures, an attacking Washington team and a frozen natural-grass surface, the Lobos brought all the tools for the challenge. They even made a stop at several sporting goods stores prior to kickoff, and that paid off the most.

The team was outfitted with flats instead of cleats for the icy surface.

Sophomore Ben McKendry scored eight minutes before halftime and the seventh-seeded Lobos had second-seeded Washington on its heels and skating. New Mexico started fast and closed out strong on defense to put the Huskies’ season in the deep freezer by posting a gritty 1-0 win Saturday in an NCAA Elite Eight quarterfinal match on the frozen turf at Husky Soccer Stadium.

As a result, the Lobos are headed to their second NCAA Final Four in school history. It’s safe to say they now have traction going forward.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our team, because we came into a challenging situation with the (frozen) field and the fact that Washington’s a challenging team to play against … ,” said Jeremy Fishbein, the Lobos’ 12th-year coach.

“We were very good on both sides of the ball. I don’t know if (Washington) had a good chance on goal.”

New Mexico (14-5-2) advances to the College Cup – the NCAA Final Four – at PPL Park in Philadelphia, Pa. for a national semifinal match with Notre Dame (15-1-8) on Friday at either 3 or 5:30 p.m. Mountain time. The semis will air live on ESPNU. The NCAA championship match is Sunday, Dec. 15 at 3 p.m.

The Lobos were physical in the second half in preserving their one-goal lead. They withstood Washington’s offensive push and handed the Huskies their first home loss of 2013. The contentious finish ended with Fishbein and Washington coach Jamie Clark having words, a strange sight considering Clark cut his coaching teeth under Fishbein from 2002-2005 with the Lobos as an assistant.

Fishbein and his fired-up Lobos next will go against Clark’s father, Bobby, who coaches Notre Dame.

“In the NCAA Tournament, it’s the tightest of margins to win games,” Jamie Clark said. “In the first half, (New Mexico) was very good. In the first half, we didn’t have the right footwear – coaching mistake. We’ve never played in (frozen conditions) before, and we didn’t realize how much of a difference (our shoes) would make.

“Once we changed our footwear (at halftime), we went to buy footwear, we were better.”

The Huskies’ move from cleats to flats came a little late for the Lobos’ latest victim, and Washington became UNM’s third shutout victim of the tournament.

“That was something we’ve never seen before in the city,” Clark said. “And who would think flats on ice would work. They came with them before the game. The game changed once we did that and all of a sudden, we could actually play.

“These guys (Huskies players) couldn’t defend in the first half and we made New Mexico look good.”

UNM goalkeeper Michael Lisch, bottom, clutches the ball as Lobo Mathew Gibbons, top, and Huskies’ Josh Heard collide. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

UNM goalkeeper Michael Lisch, bottom, clutches the ball as Lobo Mathew Gibbons, top, and Huskies’ Josh Heard collide. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

The Lobos went ahead 1-0 on McKendry’s left-footed finish from point-blank range at the left post in the 37th minute. McKendry was in a perfect spot to beat Washington goalkeeper Ryan Herman after a well-slotted pass from Oniel Fisher split the Huskies’ defense and found an open McKendry.

“It was the hard surface, and it wasn’t necessarily the cold that was hard, because once you get moving, you get warm,” McKendry said. “We just tried to play without mistakes and get it behind them and make them play under pressure. For the most part, it worked.”

It was McKendry’s fifth goal of the season and Fisher’s second assist. Fisher, a junior, scored the first goal — in the 54th minute – in last week’s 2-0 win over Penn State in the Sweet 16.

New Mexico, No. 11 in NCAA RPI rankings, advanced the Elite Eight this season by ousting George Mason 1-0 in the second round of the NCAAs and shut out Penn State by not allowing the Nittany Lions a shot on goal.

The Conference USA regular-season champion Lobos, the lone team from a non-BCS conference left in the tourney, reached the NCAA championship game in 2005, dropping a 1-0 decision to Maryland. That marked the school’s only other Elite Eight appearance.

Regarding the footwear, Fishbein said, “I tell you what, the guys that are the real geniuses are the two guys I coach with, Paul Souders and Brandon Moss, because they organized getting those turf shoes before the game. “We got everybody in a pair and I thought that was pretty important in first half. The other team was skating around.

“We got (the turf shoes) at like four different stores.”

The Lobos opened the season 4-3-1, but found their footing and find themselves in the NCAA Final Four for the second time in school history.

“We told the guys we were going to embrace the challenge,” said Fishbein, who lobbied to move the game from the grass field to FieldTurf at Husky Football Stadium before the referees declared the grass playable prior to kickoff. “We had some concerns today. It was our preference to play on a FieldTurf field, but as soon as the officials said we are playing here, we didn’t make an issue of it to the players.

“Our guys are mature, and they dealt with it.”

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