EAST LANSING - Earlier this season, the Michigan State men's soccer team honored the 1967 and 1968 squads that won back-to-back national championships.

That decision alone perhaps foretold how the Spartans' 2018 season would play out.

This program has mostly been all head coach Damon Rensing has known since 1993. First as a player from 1993-1996, then as an assistant under his mentor, Joe Baum, and finally as head coach beginning in the 2009 season, Rensing capped off a decade's worth of work Saturday evening in DeMartin Stadium as Michigan State defeated James Madison, 2-1, to reach the College Cup - aka the NCAA tournament national semifinals - for the first time since 1968.

It was easy to see how much this all meant to Rensing, as he spent most of the post-match press conference fighting back 25 years' worth of tears of joy.

"There had to be 50 alums in the stands (today)," Rensing said. "The common goal was to always try to get here. To keep chipping away and make the NCAA tournament consistently, start to make deep runs. This is to all the alums who put in so much time and effort and resources and I'm just very proud to represent them."

This moment has been 10 years in the making for Michigan State soccer, and over the past six seasons, the Spartans have suffered heartbreak after heartbreak in the NCAA tournament. Three times in the past five seasons, the Spartans came up short in the Elite Eight, losing to Notre Dame in 2013, Providence in 2014 and Indiana in penalties last year.

"This has been a goal of ours since I got here," said senior forward Ryan Sierakowski, who scored both MSU goals on Saturday. "It was devastating losing to Indiana last year, and ever since that game, this is what we've been playing for, what we've been grinding for. To do it in front of a crowd like that was unbelievable. I couldn't have dreamt it up any better."

Sometimes, it's the journey, not the destination that makes it all the sweeter. This is a program that was more or less out of the national title conversation this fall after a late-season swoon saw the Spartans go from ranked No. 3 to out of the polls.

Hear from Michigan State soccer coach Damon Rensing and players Ryan Sierakowski and Connor Corrigan after beating James Madison. Phil Friend, Lansing State Journal

But instead of folding after only winning two of its final eight matches heading into the NCAA tournament, the Spartans went the other way, relying on their previous postseason exploits to right the ship.

It all started with two goals in the first 19 minutes against Illinois-Chicago. That was followed by upset wins over No. 4 Louisville and No. 13 Georgetown. Finally, presented with a shocking opportunity to host an Elite Eight match, the Spartans didn't crumble when they trailed 1-0 to the Dukes on Saturday.

That resilience was built between the loss to Maryland in the Big Ten tournament and now. With 10 seniors on the squad, Rensing knew he had to challenge his seniors to rise to the moment instead of ending their careers with a whimper.

And it was one of those seniors, Sierakowski, who paved the path to Santa Barbara, California, and the College Cup, where the Spartans will play Akron at 8 p.m. Friday. The Zips beat MSU in a regular-season matchup, 2-1, on Oct. 9.

With the Spartans behind, 1-0, they went on the attack right away to start the second half.

That push forward finally paid off in the 72nd minute.

From the right side, senior Robbie Cort sent a cross toward freshman Farai Mutatu at the top of the 18-yard box. Mutatu immediately flicked it forward to Sierakowski, who maintained his run and slotted it home to tie the match.

In the 81st minute, it was an absolute moment of magic from Sierakowski. The build-up play started with a long ball at midfield from sophomore defender Patrick Nielsen. He found senior fullback Connor Corrigan down the left side, and Corrigan sent a low cross to Sierakowski hovering around the 6-yard box. With two defenders marking Sierakowski on his run to the left post, the forward decided to go with a backheel.

It worked.

His shot got past James Madison goalkeeper TJ Bush and all of the sudden the Spartans were 10 minutes away from the College Cup.

"I was pushing the line and I saw Connor streaming down the left, and I told (Nielsen) to play it, and he clipped a great ball through. And Connor took it down and I knew he would serve it," Sierakowski said. "I made a run in front of that defender and was lucky enough to slot it away."

Corrigan said he knew his pass was going to get to its intended target despite the tight defense.

"Credit the coaches," Corrigan said. "We've been working on those early one-time balls across the box the day before every game. Once I was in that position, I knew Ryan would be there without a doubt and I knew he'd get the goal."

Perhaps even more surprising is that James Madison had only given up eight goals all year. The Spartans scored two in the final 18 minutes of Saturday's match.

"Sometimes the ball bounces your way," Rensing said.

Another senior, goalkeeper Jimmy Hague, proved why he is one of the nation's best once again Saturday, turning away four JMU shots and keeping MSU in the match.

But for Rensing, it all goes back to those Michigan State soccer alums -- the 1967 and 1968 national title teams, and everyone in between. That includes his mentor, Baum, who was the goalkeeper on both of those championship squads.

And the same respect goes for his assistant coaches: Ben Pirmann, Cale Wassermann and Micah Collins.

"Ben Pirmann and Cale Wasserman are two of the best assistants in the country," Rensing said. "It's a staff, it's not just me. We've got a great staff and I'm just very proud and thankful what those guys have done. They were brilliant this whole NCAA tournament."

Contact digital sports reporter Phil Friend at 517-377-1220 or pfriend@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @Phil_Friend.

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