EAST LANSING, Mich. - The Michigan State men's soccer team wrapped the first week of training Friday. The squad reported to campus on Tuesday, Aug. 12 to begin preparation for a new year following a record-breaking 2013 campaign.
So it Begins
The first week of training consisted of a fitness test, scrimmage play and extensive drilling. Rensing aims to engrain the program's defensively-minded philosophy into the players early and build from there.
"We try to set a good defensive mentality," said Rensing. "This program has been built on winning championships through defense, so we really try to establish our defensive shape and organization first. When the players have a good grasp of that, we'll look to go more on the offensive side of things.
"You can talk a lot of tactics. You can talk systems of play, zonal defending, but at the end of the day, a lot times soccer comes down to 1v1 - how you're taking people on. Are you able to beat them? Are you able to defend them?"
After the players' performance during the scrimmage, Rensing was able to expand upon their summer progress. The summer was a busy one for the Spartan squad, as many players were involved in league play at a variety of levels.
"It's early, but I think we've seen some good growth from a lot of players," Rensing said. "I think the one thing I appreciate seeing is older guys, juniors and seniors, coming back and really starting to understand not just how we do things off the field, but what we're doing on the field. They're learning and they're starting to have a very good grasp of things. They're actually helping the younger guys pick up on what Michigan State is all about. That's been enjoyable to see.
"If you're going to do well in the Big Ten, your veteran players are going to have to be the ones that will show up and be your veteran players more times than not. We have that."
Along with the guidance of veteran leadership, the underclassmen have shown the potential for success at the collegiate level.
"I think all of the freshmen and transfers have come in and shown that they belong at the level that we're at," said Rensing. "The freshmen in all of their different positions have come on and shown some very good things. I'm very pleased with all of the youngsters.
"Halfway through, I feel like there is a grasp of what's going on. I think we've painted a picture and the players have a good understanding of what that picture looks like. Now, we have to learn how to go out and execute it. That's the next step. The exhibition games will help us paint that picture and execute, and ultimately prepare us for the first game against SMU."
Breaking it Down
Rensing, along with associate head coach Kylie Stannard, broke down the roster position-by-position following the first week of training, providing insight into how each component of the Spartan machine will work together for another year of elite competition.
The Defensive Anchor
Junior Zach Bennett held down the net for the Spartans in 2013, finishing the season with a .878 saves percentage that was ranked third in the nation. He also tied the program record for shutouts with 13 and was ranked 14th in the nation for his 0.70 GAA. Bennett returns as keeper after a lauded summer campaign.
"Zach (Bennett) came on halfway through his freshman year," said Rensing. "He had a very good year last year playing his first full year of college soccer. I think he's even further along now. Certainly, (his accomplishments) are a testament to Zach, but also to our team defending.
"I look at Zach as the anchor of a defensive unit. I think he'll continue to be a strong anchor for us this fall. He's coming in looking sharp. He's played over the summer. I expect him to be one of the top goalies in the Big Ten and even in the country."
"Quinn (McAnaney) has come in and shown very well," Rensing said. "He's a red-shirt junior. What's been great about Quinn is that he and Zach have had a great partnership. Every year, his game has developed. Should anything happen to Zach or if Zach struggles, we feel that Quinn is more than capable of being a Big Ten-caliber goalkeeper.
"Jimmy Hague and Philip (Stair) are freshmen. They have great attitudes. They both have different qualities that they bring to the table. I think they could both be Big Ten-caliber goalkeepers. I think goalkeeping can be one of the toughest transitions into college. Everything is being struck harder, guys are bigger and everything is faster, so I think those guys have shown the potential to belong. They've shown a good capacity to play."
The keyword for goalkeeping is the anchor and how the keepers work together to form a unit.
"We look at the goalkeeping as a unit of four," said Rensing. "We don't just look at the success of our starting goalkeeper, but how all four of them work together. So far, it looks to be a good unit. I think they older guys are working with Jimmy and Phil. Our goal is to create a good unit and that'll bring the younger guys in. That'll be a good anchor for our defense this year."
The Defensive Unit
For the coaching staff, the organized defensive unit is an extension of the anchor in goal and Stannard, who was the 2013 NSCAA Regional Assistant Coach of the Year, believes that the team has already latched on to its defensive philosophy early in training.
"Having Zach Bennett back there and Quinn, who's been here as well too, those guys are great with their leadership and organization," said Stannard. "They're a huge piece of that defensive unit. They've been very sharp and completely in sync with each other so far. The newer guys have really come in and not missed much of a beat, so that group really seems to be on the same page at an early point.
"All these guys played a significant amount over the summer and came in very sharp, very fit and hungry to compete for spots. To be honest, the back has seemed like a cohesive unit so far. We're very pleased."
Senior Ryan Keener has started for the Spartan defense three consecutive years, and will continue to help lock down communication in the backfield for the 2014 season.
"I think with (Ryan) Keener coming back, we have a really strong, experienced leader," said Stannard. "He's a three-year starter now. He knows how we do things, just from our mentality and defensive attitude. He's one of the best players in the air, possibly in the country, definitely in the Big Ten. He's a threat on every restart, both attacking and defending. We pride ourselves on that. Keener's experience and leadership in the back will be huge."
Keener's experience will help guide this year's defensive unit through a rather significant loss of graduates Ryan Thelen and All-American Kevin Cope. Among those competing for spots are Andrew Herr and transfer Zach Carroll.
"Andrew (Herr) came in and did an excellent job last year," Stannard said. "He took an opportunity in preseason and played extremely well and kind of rode that all season long. He was very good. He's got an incredible work rate and fitness level, so he gets up and down the line really well. He can go all day long. I think Andrew has comfortably acclimated himself to that position and has played in a lot of big games last year. He's a huge asset return as well. We foresee him helping out somewhere on the field. He does a great job communicating what he sees in front of him as well.
"One of our transfers coming in, Zach Carroll, has two years of great experience. He went to a Final Four last year with Virginia. He's a center back. He's going to come in competing for one of the open center back positions. Zach was a starter for the U-17 Youth National Team and played in the U-17 National Cup, so he's got incredible experience and a lot of high-level games. We foresee him competing a lot in the back line and helping Keener a lot with the communication and leadership back there."
Stannard went on to mention the lengthy list of other players who could potentially compete for minutes in the back.
"Some of the guys that are going to compete for that spot are guys like Ryan Scott, who is a red-shirt freshman this year," said Stannard. "Ryan is a really smart soccer player and one of our more technical players. He can serve a really good ball.
"There's Asa Miller, who will competing for time as an outside back, but is a really good worker. He has a good engine, a good fitness level. Also, we brought in Brian Alumbaugh, who is a really technical player that reads the game really well. He can really serve a good ball and is really comfortable playing out in the back. His challenge, like a lot of these guys, will be to be a really good 1v1 defender and lock things down defensively. That's a huge attribute for Michigan State men's soccer ─ 1v1 defending.
"The other guys competing for that are potentially freshmen. Jimmy Fiscus, who is a Northville kid and very competitive, is a very good defender. He's going to come in and compete for minutes along with Brad Centala, kind of similar. They both have certain areas of strength. Both are pretty good defenders, but they haven't played in Big Ten games yet. We're trying to get those guys experience and reps right now. We feel that those guys could compete for minutes somewhere.
"Last but not least is Austin Piwinski, who's a red-shirt freshman. Quite possibly, Austin is our best athlete on the team. He is still learning the speed of the game and some of the technical and tactical pieces of the game, so he's getting caught up to reading the game. To his credit, he can make up for a lot of things because he is such an incredible athlete, very good in the air."
"(Midfield) should be one of the deepest areas of the field this year," said Rensing. "We've got a lot of competency there. Certainly, Jay (Chapman) and Fatai (Alashe) have been mainstays of the last two years in that central mid. We've got guys like Ben Myers, in big games, and Brian Winterfield, this past spring, that have shown the capacity to play in those positions as well.
"You look and there are guys like Dewey Lewis, Kyle Rutz and Jerome Cristobal, who have all played decent minutes. Kyle can kind of play a lot of different places, but he's a senior and he knows what it's about in the Big Ten and the national landscape. I expect him to challenge for a starting position out wide.
"Dewey really came on strong at the end of his freshman year. Ali (Scheib) had a very good spring as a red-shirt freshman. Those guys are looking good.
"Jerome (Cristobal) is another one who has had a really good spring and gave us some minutes last year. He can play on the left or the right side of the midfield. He's a good possession player. He's certainly right in there competing for minutes."
"Kyle Rutz is another guy that is a senior who has played a little bit of everywhere," added Stannard. "Kyle actually played as an outside mid and forward for us last year, scored a few goals. He's competing for minutes somewhere on the field for sure. He's one of our biggest competitors and one of the toughest guys on the team. I know he's dying to get on the field and make an impact. We see him competing significantly."
"Ken Krolicki, as a freshman, has impacted things. Michael Marcantognini is more of a central guy, but also has shown well. It's a good group with Asa Miller and Jason Stacy. Jason had to sit out last year after transferring from the University of Michigan. He's a left-footed player, who has some special attacking qualities. We'll look to see what he'll do, but I think he's another guy that can challenge for starting minutes as well."
Seniors Adam Montague and Tim Kreutz head up the attacking spot for Michigan State this season. Both have earned starting minutes since their freshman seasons and look to continue to make an impact on the Spartan scoring campaign.
"Adam (Montague) has been second-team All-Big Ten and a captain," said Rensing. "Tim (Kreutz) kind of emerged last year. Those two together are a really good unit. They do different things. Tim's got a lot of pace. He can stretch in behind. Adam holds the ball up well. He also can get in behind, but also can get on the end of things. Those two guys can be a very formidable pair in college soccer based on their abilities and experience. That's great group.
"Then you've got guys like Blake Skamiera, who had some injuries last year, who's a senior. He can hold the ball. He plays probably a little more like Montague as opposed to Kreutz. He has a knack for getting on the end of things and being in the right spot at the right time."
Even with just four forwards listed on the roster, Rensing expects contribution in terms of scoring from other team members out of the midfield.
"You've got guys like Dewey Lewis, Kyle Rutz, Ali Scheib and even Jason Stacy, who can play out wide in the midfield or up top," Rensing said. "While at first, it doesn't look like we have a lot of depth with some great talent, we've got a lot of guys that we feel very comfortable with. Dewey and Kyle played a stretch of games at forward. Kyle scored the game-winning goal against Michigan last year. We've got guys I think are capable at that position with depth."
Even up top, the staff foresees the execution of the team's defensive mentality from the forward spot.
"At the end of the day, forwards' jobs are to score goals" said Rensing. "I think we've got in Adam, Tim and those other guys, two-way forwards. What I mean by that is, not only do those guys work when we have the ball to get on the end of things, to create chances, but they work well defensively too. When you have forwards who are able to do that, that's great, because you have all the defenders, everybody behind them, to see what those guys are doing. When those guys are working, that energizes the entire unit. I think we've got some good two-way forwards."
Coverage of the Michigan State men's soccer preseason will continue next week as the Spartans complete another week of training and head to Fort Wayne, Indiana to take on Washington at 6 p.m. in their first exhibition matchup.