Western Michigan Broncos men’s soccer ready for NCAA Sweet 16

Kalamazoo – Chad Wiseman built a successful men’s soccer program in western Michigan primarily through relationships and connections. When the pandemic hit, it slowed the Broncos’ momentum.

The 2020 fall season was pushed back to spring 2021, but even then and the 2021 fall season that followed, it wasn’t really the same. The team could play and practice, but not really together like they normally would.

So, before the start of the fall 2022 season, Wiseman organized a team trip to Boyne, where they practiced and played for five days this past August, but they also explored Lake Michigan, played paintball and tried their hand at disc golf. They stayed at the resort, team captains would come up with a fantasy draft for roommates and make sure the list was filled properly, with someone who could cook, someone who could clean, etc.

“We left that,” Wiseman said, “and felt really good.”

They left the feeling of a good football team and a really tight football team.

So maybe it’s fitting that western Michigan football players, coaches and supervisors spend this holiday weekend together, more than 2,200 miles from Kalamazoo.

The Broncos will play host Portland (14-2-3) in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament at 8 p.m. Eastern Saturday at Merlo Field. A win and western Michigan men’s soccer (16-2-2) make it into the Elite Eight for the first time.

Canceling Thanksgiving Day plans has never felt so good.

“Yes, I was actually going to visit family in Chicago,” said Charlie Sharp, a senior Brighton forward who was called up to cook turkey at the team hotel early Thursday. “But I can’t do that right now, which I totally agree with, to be honest with you.”

Matt Lockwood, a Utah graduate student and defense attorney who transferred from Utah Tech and originally planned to visit his mother in Northport on the Leelanau Peninsula: “Honestly, I hope it doesn’t come across as selfish, but I would do I don’t want it any other way. I’d rather be in Portland preparing for what’s going to be the greatest game of all life than go and celebrate Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, that will always be there. But to have the opportunity to play there Sweet 16, that’s once in a lifetime.”

This season was the ride of a lifetime for the Broncos, who last competed in the NCAA tournament in 2017 — that was the last and only time they made the Sweet 16 and fell to Michigan State.

Western Michigan started this season with a couple of exhibition wins before losing 2-0 at Butler in the official season opener on August 25.

The Broncos would not lose again for 49 days.

Western Michigan followed Butler’s loss with a three-game winning streak against the Big Ten against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Wisconsin’s win at Kalamazoo came literally with a last-second goal from redshirt defenseman Jonathan Robinson as a sophomore.

“That was kind of the moment,” Sharp said, “when we knew we were real.”

Western Michigan typically plays a tough non-conference schedule and has not lost to a Big Ten team since 2018. In the last 12 games against teams from Michigan State the score was 0-12. It hasn’t lost to Michigan State since the Sweet 16 in 2017. It’s 4-2-1 against Michigan in Wiseman’s tenure; Michigan will not play Western Michigan now.

After the three-game Big Ten streak, Western Michigan won six more — the nine-game winning streak set a program record.

The Broncos went into the season knowing they were talented and thrived on the COVID-19 pandemic by giving some key players a fifth year, including Rochester Stoney Creek senior forward Mike Melaragni and senior midfielder Eric Conerty from Grand Rapids “Forest Hills Central. They combined for 34 points. The COVID situation also allowed Lockwood, who has nine points, and Hunter Morse, a goaltender who transferred from Michigan State, to play a fifth and final year at Kalamazoo.

Western Michigan’s best six points come from seniors, including Sharp, who leads the team with 11 goals. Senior defenseman Daniel Nimick is second on the team with eight goals.

“Going into the season, we knew we had a founding group. We’ve had so many veterans returning and so many new tracks being added. “We’ve never played a game where we thought we were the second best team of the day. It’s an incredible feeling to have as a team.”

West Michigan’s winning streak was only broken on Oct. 9 when it ended 0-0 in northern Illinois.

The Broncos didn’t lose again until October 13, falling 1-0 at home to Akron, a men’s soccer dynamo who has a national championship to his tally.

Western Michigan won its next four games before going on another date with Akron, this time on the road. The powerhouses tied 1-1 to give Akron the Mid-American Conference regular-season championship. That made it very clear what the Broncos would have to do in the MAC Tournament if they wanted to secure their spot in the NCAA Tournament: win.

And that’s exactly what Western Michigan did on the same field where Akron was tied six days earlier. This time, the Broncos won 2-1, highlighted by a goal and assist from Sharp, the tournament’s MVP for the last MAC Championship (the league, which is short on teams, is dropping its sponsorship of men’s soccer; WMU is moving to the Missouri Valley Conference next year). There was a slim chance that if the Broncos had lost, they might still have wormed their way into the NCAA tournament. But the win meant there would be no jitters, no fingernail biting, no suspense whatsoever two days later at Burger-and-Fries-Haven University Roadhouse for the Selection Show, other than who they would be playing in the first round.

“That was great,” Lockwood said, “to be honest.”

Western Michigan drew Louisville from the ACC, which is considered the top football conference in the country. The Broncos won 2-1 in Louisville. Then it was Lipscomb that the Broncos beat 1-0 in Nashville.

Next stop: Portland.

“We’re getting free vacations as a result,” said Melaragni, who, incidentally, is one of several Broncos to wear a rainbow captain’s armband on the field while pride shows are banned at the ongoing World Cup in Qatar. “I’ve never been to Louisville, I’ve never been to Nashville, I’ve never been to Portland. It is great.

“I don’t want it to end.

“We all love each other so much on this team.”

This makes the holiday audibly much easier to digest.

“I think that’s probably a little more exciting at this point,” said Conerty, who was planning to dine with his parents and grandparents in Cincinnati.

Said Morse, the MSU transfer, who had planned to go home to Belleville but will now be in Portland at the same time his old MSU buddies will be playing in the men’s and women’s basketball Phil Knight Invitational: “I think my family was a little upset I won’t be there but they understand.”

Dylan Sing, a senior forward from Berrien Center, Michigan, and Lakeshore High who is second on the roster with 19 points, added, “My mom made dinner for the family, but I think she understands that this is a real one cool experience.”

That’s always been Wiseman’s goal when he’s recruiting — to promise potential future Broncos that the experience would be great.

He delivered a lot more than he doesn’t have.

Wiseman played for Western Michigan in the late 1990s and early 2000s before joining the team from 2003–08. He joined Olivet to become a head coach and led the team to 6th nationally in 2012. Concurrently, Wiseman led the Plainwell girls soccer team to back-to-back state championships in 2011 and 2012.

He was hired by Western Michigan in 2013 and he didn’t have a losing season. He has one MAC regular-season championship, three MAC tournament runners-up finishes, and now one MAC tournament title. Another win and the ceiling is completely shattered — not that another win is the perceived ceiling for these Broncos.

“My goal in recruiting is for them to have a better experience in their college years than mine, and I loved my college experience,” Wiseman said. “I’d say they’re probably having fun.”

And they still get turkey and side dishes, albeit a long way from home — but close to their adoptive brothers.

These Broncos wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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