Appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, the Ohio State men’s soccer team knows that one slip up could mark the end of the road.
However, the team has embraced that mindset, junior midfielder Zach Mason said.
“It feels a little bit different, because you know these games are the most important, this is what you play the whole regular season for, train in the preseason for,” the co-captain said. “They’re huge. So, you get up a little bit more for these.”
OSU (9-7-4) is set for a rematch with Akron for its first-round matchup. Akron defeated OSU back on Sept. 24, 3-1.
OSU coach John Bluem said despite the result from the first meeting, the Zips will be seeing a different OSU team Thursday.
“I think we’re playing better as a team now than we were at that point in time,” Bluem said. “I think we’re defending better than we did at that point in time, so those are things that should help us help us a little bit in this game.”
Senior midfielder Yianni Sarris said he agreed with his coach’s thoughts.
“We dropped the first one, which was unfortunate on our part, but we grew as a team, and we’re definitely a stronger and better team now,” Sarris said.
Sarris said every player has developed and gotten better “in their own way” as the season progressed.
Bluem said that Akron (13-6-1) does possess one advantage that the Buckeyes cannot account for: experience.
“(Experience is) certainly something that works to their favor,” Bluem said. “They have a lot of guys that have NCAA Tournament experience, and we have nobody.”
The Zips are appearing in the tournament for the 10th consecutive season. That includes a 2010 season that saw Akron hoist the national championship trophy for the first time in school history after defeating Louisville in the title game.
On the other side, only one player on OSU’s roster has ever appeared in an NCAA Tournament game: senior midfielder Yianni Sarris, in his lone season at Florida Gulf Coast as a freshman.
However, Sarris said his experience from three years ago is incomparable to how he feels about OSU going dancing this season, because of the connection he feels with his current teammates.
“It’s very nice to be back,” Sarris said. “I really wanted to do it with this squad. I mean, this squad is my family, this is my brotherhood.”
The Zips — the Mid-American Conference champions — boast a strong attack that is led by sophomore midfielder Adam Najem, who is tied for fourth in the nation with 13 goals this season.
One of those came in Akron’s regular season victory in Columbus, a header in the 76th minute that found the back of the net for the third and final Zips goal that evening.
Bluem said OSU is in good shape for the rematch, simply because Akron has already defeated the Buckeyes this year.
“I would say the biggest advantage is that they beat us the first time,” the 2014 Big Ten Coach of the Year said. “It’s difficult to beat a team twice in one season. Our guys are going to be excited to play the game, not only because it’s an NCAA Tournament game, but because it’s a chance to get back at a team that beat you.”
Another factor the players and coaches are thinking about in advance of the game is the weather forecast for Thursday evening.
According to the Weather Channel, the forecast for the start of the game at 5 p.m. is about 25 degrees, with winds blowing between 10 and 15 mph.
Mason said tackling the cold weather head-on is something that the team will need to carefully plan out.
“In these conditions, it’s a mental game,” Mason said. “You have to understand that it’s going to be cold, and just get over it, really.”
OSU and Akron met in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2008, with Akron winning, 1-0, in double overtime. That was the only postseason matchup between the schools, though they have met 38 times overall, with Akron dominating the all-time series, 28-6-3.
The winner of the game will advance to South Bend, Ind., to take on the defending champions and No. 1 seed in the tournament, Notre Dame, on Sunday.
OSU’s first-round matchup against Akron is scheduled to kick off at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium at 5 p.m.