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'I don't want it end': Western Michigan soccer enjoying all the fixins this Thanksgiving

Kalamazoo — Chad Wiseman has built a successful Western Michigan men's soccer program largely through relationships and bonding, so when the pandemic hit, it stunted the Broncos' momentum.

The 2020 fall season was postponed until the spring of 2021, but even then, and in the subsequent fall 2021 season, it wasn't really the same. The team could play and practice, but couldn't really together like they typically would be together.

So, before the fall 2022 season rolled around, Wiseman organized a team trip to Boyne, where for five days this past August, yes, they practiced and they played, but they also explored Lake Michigan, played paintball, and tried their hands at disc golf. They stayed at the resort, team captains holding a fantasy draft for roommates, being sure to fill the roster properly, with someone who could cook, someone who could clean, etc.

"We left that," said Wiseman, "feeling really good about ourselves."

They left that feeling like a good soccer team, and a really close soccer team.

So perhaps it's fitting that, on this holiday weekend, the Western Michigan soccer players, coaches and support staff are spending it 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) will make the Elite Eight for the first time.

Canceling Thanksgiving Day plans never felt so good.

"Yeah, I was actually going to see some family in Chicago," said Charlie Sharp, a senior forward from Brighton who was the early nominee to cook the turkey at the team hotel Thursday. "But I'm unable to do that now, which I'm perfectly fine with, to be quite frank with you."

Said Matt Lockwood, a graduate student and defender from Utah, who transferred from Utah Tech and who had initially planned to visit his mother in Northport on the Leelanau Peninsula: "Honestly, I hope it doesn't come off as selfish, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I'd rather be in Portland preparing for what's going to be the biggest game of everyone's lives than going and having Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, that's always going to be there. But having the opportunity to play in the Sweet 16, that's once in a lifetime."

This season has been the ride of a lifetime for the Broncos, who last made the NCAA Tournament in 2017 — that was the last and only previous time they made it to the Sweet 16, falling to Michigan State.

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

The Broncos wouldn't lose again for 49 days.

Western Michigan followed the Butler loss with a three-game winning streak over the Big Ten, against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. The Wisconsin win, in Kalamazoo, came on a literally last-second goal by redshirt sophomore defender Jonathan Robinson.

"That was kind of the moment," said Sharp, "where we knew we were legit."

Western Michigan typically plays a tough nonconference schedule, and hasn't lost to a Big Ten team since 2018. it's 12-0 in its last 12 games against teams from the state of Michigan. 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 won't play Western Michigan now.

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

The Broncos came into the season knowing they were talented, and benefitting from the COVID-19 pandemic in that it awarded some key players a fifth year, like senior forward Mike Melaragni, from Rochester Stoney Creek, and senior midfielder Eric Conerty, from Grand Rapids' Forest Hills Central. They've combined for 34 points. The COVID situation also allowed Lockwood, who has nine points, and Hunter Morse, a goalkeeper who transferred from Michigan State, to play a fifth and final year in Kalamazoo.

Western Michigan's top six point tallies are from seniors, including Sharp, who leads the team with 11 goals. Senior defender Daniel Nimick is second on the team with eight goals.

"Going into the season, we knew we had a foundational group. We had so many veterans returning and so many new pieces added. It was just kind of getting everything to jell as we thought it could," Melaragni said. "We never played a game where we thought we were the second-best team on the day. That's kind of an amazing feeling to have as a team."

Western Michigan's win streak wasn't broken until Oct. 9, when it tied, 0-0, at Northern Illinois.

The Broncos didn't lose again until Oct. 13, falling, 1-0, at home to Akron, a men's soccer dynamo that has a national championship to its credit.

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

And that's exactly what Western Michigan did, on the same field where, six days earlier, it tied Akron. This time, the Broncos won, 2-1, highlighted by a goal and an assist from Sharp, the tournament MVP for what will be the final MAC championship (the league, lacking teams, is discontinuing its sponsorship of men's soccer; WMU moves to the Missouri Valley Conference next year). There was a slim chance that had the Broncos lost, they still might've snuck into the NCAA Tournament. But the victory meant that two days later at burgers-and-fries haven University Roadhouse, for the Selection Show, there would be no jitters, no finger-nail-bating, no suspense at all, really, other than who they'd be playing in the first round.

"That was awesome," said Lockwood, "to be honest."

Western Michigan drew Louisville, from the ACC, regarded as the best soccer conference in the country. The Broncos won, 2-1, in Louisville. Then it was Lipscomb, which the Broncos beat, 1-0, in Nashville.

Next stop: Portland.

"We're getting free vacations out of this," said Melaragni, who, side note, is one of multiple Broncos who wears a rainbow captain arm band on the field, while pride displays are being 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's awesome.

"I don't want it to end.

"We all love each other so much on this team."

That, for sure, makes the holiday audible much easier to stomach.

"I think this is probably a little more exciting at this point," said Conerty, who had planned to dine with his parents and grandparents in Cincinnati.

Said Morse, the MSU transfer who planned to head home to Belleville, but now will be in Portland at the same time as his old MSU mates will play in the men's and women's basketball's Phil Knight Invitational: "I think my family was a little upset I won't be there, but they do understand."

Added Dylan Sing, a senior forward from Berrien Center, Michigan, and Lakeshore High, who's second on the squad with 19 points: "My Mom was making dinner for the family, but I think she understands that this is a really cool experience."

That's always been the goal for Wiseman, when he's recruiting -- to promise potential future Broncos that the experience would be great.

He's delivered much more than he's not.

Wiseman played for Western Michigan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before joining the staff from 2003-08. He left to be head coach at Olivet, leading to the team to a No. 6 national ranking in 2012. At the same time, Wiseman led the Plainwell girls soccer team to back-to-back state championships in 2011 and 2012.

In 2013, he was hired by Western Michigan, and he hasn't had a losing season. He has one MAC regular-season championship, three MAC tournament runners-up showings, and now a MAC tournament title. One more win, and the ceiling's completely shattered — not that one more win is the perceived ceiling for these Broncos.

"When I recruit, my goal is for them to have a better experience with their college years than mine, and I loved my college experience," Wiseman said. "I would say, they're probably having some fun."

And they're still getting their turkey and sides, albeit far away from home — but close to their adopted brothers.

These Broncos wouldn't have it any other way.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984