The wall in the meeting room for the UNM men’s soccer team features 11 plaques — recognizing the 11 NCAA Tournament appearances the Lobos have made.
A 12th plaque will be added as No. 22 New Mexico faces Portland tonight in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament at the UNM Soccer Complex.
The Lobos have not played in the tournament since their 2013 Final Four run. Less than a month ago, following a 2-2 tie at home with Marshall, that drought seemed destined to deepen. They fell to 7-6-1 overall and 1-3-1 in Conference USA.
“I remember addressing them after that Marshall game,” UNM coach Jeremy Fishbein said. “And I said, ‘We’re not ending our season with a blank spot on that wall.’ And they said, ‘It’s not going to be blank, coach. It will be filled.’ ”
The Lobos (12-6-2) have not lost since. They swept through the C-USA tournament, knocking off No. 19 Kentucky and No. 5 Charlotte along the way.
“We’ve had some great teams here that maybe had a little more arrogance or swagger to them,” said Fishbein, who has taken five UNM teams to the Sweet 16, two of them to the College Cup. “This is such a hard-working group. A lot of the older guys grew up in the shadow of that last team that made it to the Final Four. I think they always had that weight on their back.”
Lobo seniors Chris Gurule, Chris Wehan, Nick Rochowski and Niko Hansen all had roles on that 2013 team that lost to Notre Dame in the national semifinals.
“The guys stayed the course,” Fishbein said. “I can’t say enough about them. Just resiliency and passion and dedication. Attention to detail.”
The Lobos will need some of all that against West Coast Conference champion Portland (12-5-1). The Pilots have the WCC’s player of the year in senior midfielder Eddie Sanchez and goalkeeper of the year in junior Paul Christensen.
“It’s a good team with some great players,” Fishbein said. “They’re coming into a tough environment, but they’re well-coached. They’re experienced.
“Our defenders have to be good. They have some great attacking players. Guys are going to have to handle them one v. one. Our ‘keeper (Jason Beaulieu) is going to have to be big.”
Beaulieu has seven shutouts and a 0.77 goals-against average this year.
“We’re going to get chances in front of the goal, and guys are going to have to take their chances,” the coach said. “We’ve done it as of late.”
Hansen is seventh in the nation with 13 goals and tied for first with seven game-winning goals.
The winner of tonight’s match visits No. 11 seed Washington on Sunday.
“Hopefully I gave the impression I believed in this team,” Fishbein said. “I expected to be playing (in the NCAA Tournament). Expected it.”
KEEPSAKE: Fishbein credits assistant Mike Graczyk (the ex-UNM ‘keeper who has four NCAA Tournament wins) for using freshman Ford Parker of Sandia in goal during the penalty kick portion of UNM’s win over Kentucky in the C-USA tournament.
“Just wonderful for Ford, a local kid who has paid his dues,” Fishbein said. “He’d never been in a big pressure moment and here he stepped into that one. That was pretty awesome. The kid will never forget that the rest of his life.”
FEAST: Fishbein said the Lobos have won every game they have had a pregame meal prepared by Saggios. He arranged another one this week.
“No desserts,” the coach said. “No cannolis.”
RADIO: The game will air on 101.7 FM with Henry Tafoya and former Lobo All-American Devon Sandoval describing the action.
NCAA Tournament, men’s soccer: Portland at No. 22 UNM, 7 p.m., 101.7 FM. Tickets: $10 Adults; $5 UNM students/children ages 3-18. Gates open at 6 p.m.