Men's soccer: Coach's guarantee fueled New Mexico to the tourney
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 on Thursday night in the first round of the 2016 tournament at the UNM Soccer Complex.
The Lobos have not played in the tournament since their run to the national semifinals in 2013. 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 Thursday'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."
This article was written by Ed Johnson from Albuquerque Journal and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.