Men's Soccer Ready For National Stage

Ohio State's national championship football game is still weeks away, but the university will have another team shooting for a national title on national TV before then. The Buckeye men's soccer team left for Cary, N.C., today as one of four teams remaining in the NCAA tournament. Find out how that program has been built and what OSU already has accomplished this season.

It seems as if there is never a time when Ohio State is not on the national stage.

For the second year in a row, the Buckeye football team will be participating in the BCS National Championship Game, and OSU will be in its fifth BCS bowl in six years. Last year, the men's basketball team reached the NCAA title game after five wins in the field of 64, and the women's cagers have become regular attendees to the big dance.

Add another sport to the mix. When the NCAA men's soccer College Cup begins Friday in Cary, N.C., with television coverage on ESPNU, the Buckeyes, the nation's fifth overall seed, will be one of four teams still alive with a shot for the national title.

Much like their predecessors in the other sports, this Buckeye squad is ready for its close-up, which comes at 7 p.m. Friday night with a national semifinal against Massachusetts.

"We know that we're always contending in the Big Ten, and now it's just great to see ourselves on the national stage," senior goalkeeper Casey Latchem said. "With recruiting and things of that sort, the national coverage is going to be great for the program."

Lest anyone think this team is a flash in the pan, its emergence has instead been the result of years of hard work from 11th-year head coach John Bluem and a group of determined seniors who have constantly pushed the program upward in scope.

Latchem was right about the program's assent to the upper reaches of the league. Bluem has built a team that had never finished in the top half of the Big Ten before his arrival into a perennial contender that tied for the league crown in 2004 and finished second each of the last two years.

However, the gap between being a team with a perennial chance to win the league and a national power is a big one. In fact, the Ohio State soccer program, which dates back to 1953, has never come this close to winning the big one. The motivation to make it this far might have come almost exactly a year ago.

It was then that the Buckeyes, who had just finished the 2006 regular season at 11-7-3, gathered at Damon's restaurant off campus to watch the NCAA tournament selection show. Forty-eight school names flashed on the screen, two at a time, but none read Ohio State. As the Buckeyes trudged out of the restaurant disappointed, any motivation that would be needed for '07 was already in place.

"As bad as it sounds, not getting into the tournament last year motivated us that much just to work hard in the offseason, work hard in the preseason," said another senior, defender Eric Brunner. "It's prepared us throughout the year to get us to the College Cup."

Throughout the year, proving the 2006 committee wrong was the Buckeyes' stated goal. To get there, hard work was combined with a team concept.

"On and off the field, I can't say enough about these guys," Latchem said. "We're such a tight-knit group of guys."

When it came to just how hard the Buckeyes would have to work, they might have looked to Brunner. The 6-4 defender transferred from Maryland after a freshman season of 2004 that concluded in a College Cup appearance, and his experience from that year has been helpful to moving Ohio State into the category of the elite.

"I'd been to the final four before so I knew how hard I had to work with the team to get there, and I was hoping I could help the guys out and say, ‘You know what, it takes this amount of work to get here.'" He said. "And we've done that. It's a great feeling to see that."

Ohio is a good state in terms of quality of play when it comes to prep soccer, and that is shown on the Buckeyes' roster. Six of the Buckeyes' usual starters hail from the Buckeye State, including the three co-captains – Brunner, Latchem and Big Ten player of the year Xavier Balc. All are potential Major League Soccer players.

Those three have keyed much of Ohio State's run. Balc, of Hudson, enters the College Cup with eight goals and 13 assists, a number that set the school single-season record and helped him set the school career record as well. Dublin native Brunner has six goals and has spearheaded a defense that has made life easy for Latchem, a Perrysburg native who has conceded 18 goals in 24 games. His 14 shutouts this year are a school record, and he also holds the career record.

Those numbers improve during the last 14 games for Ohio State. The Buckeyes are 11-0-3 in that span to set the school record unbeaten streak. During that run, which includes NCAA tournament wins over Louisville, UC-Santa Barbara and Bradley, OSU has allowed just six goals. The result is a team that belongs on the national stage.

"We're very confident," Balc said. "Now that we have this unbeaten streak that we're on, we kind of feel that it's going to come for us a little easier than for teams coming in and trying to beat us. There is a little bit of a swagger to us."

Even if the Buckeyes think they can compete on the field – and they should, considering that they are the second-highest seed remaining behind No. 2 Wake Forest – that doesn't mean that they necessarily aren't awed by the situation in which they find themselves. Multiple players have talked about their excitement at the prospect of seeing Ohio State's name painted onto the field, one of the perks of actually playing in an event most have watched for some time.

"I've watched it since I was a junior high schooler, so it's kind of surreal right now," Latchem said. "It hasn't sunk in."

**Note: OSU's game Friday can be seen on ESPNU at 7 p.m., with the final Sunday on ESPN2 should OSU advance. The Buckeyes' games can be heard free on the Internet on the school's student radio station, www.ohiostatesports.net.


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