NIU soccer raises MAC image

There’s a new game in town for the MAC.

Until very recently the conference’s football squads were making a name for the smaller, gentler version of the Big Ten. The conference’s apex season was likely 2003, when in one weekend NIU beat No. 22 Alabama, Marshall defeated No. 6 Kansas State and Toledo upended nationally-ranked Pittsburgh.

But now the “futbol” teams of the MAC are carrying the torch for the conference. Akron is the No. 1 team in the nation and Buffalo stands at No. 20. NIU was ranked in top 25 for a week earlier this season. Not bad for a conference that counts only six soccer teams in its ranks.

It’s basically unheard of for a MAC team to be ranked in the top five in any sport, let alone be No. 1. Even in the minor sports like soccer or volleyball, It’s the Oklahomas and the USCs and the Michigans leading the charge. But the MAC is changing all that, thanks to Akron, Buffalo and NIU.

Speaking of NIU, congratulations to coach Steve Simmons on the three-year contract extension he signed Thursday. The man certainly deserves it. He has taken NIU men’s soccer program out of the MAC cellar.

Former coach Willy Roy was a nice enough guy, but the Huskies were faltering toward the end of his 16-year reign. They won just eight games over his final two seasons.

Roy’s biggest successes came when he was on the field, not on the sidelines. He scored five goals in 10 World Cup games for the U.S. national team, but the Huskies had losing records in half the seasons he led them. That’s practically the definition of mediocre.

The Huskies actually took a step backward in Simmons’ first year, winning three games, but they went 12-7 last season and have improved to 10-4-2 this year. NIU even recorded seven consecutive shutouts earlier this season.

The Huskies are in prime position to get a bye in the first round of the MAC tournament, meaning they would advance past the first round for the first time since 1999.

Now, NIU likely will not beat Akron in the postseason, but if it weren’t for three handballs that resulted in three goals in NIU’s 5-1 loss to Akron on Friday, who knows what could have happened. Even in a four-goal defeat the Huskies showed they could play with the No. 1 team in the nation.

It’s about time another NIU team had some big-time success to go along with the football and wrestling squads. They were getting lonely.

So, even if sports mean nothing to you, take a moment to consider NIU’s conference has the No. 1 team in the nation. That’s pretty cool. Steve Simmons is pretty cool, too. Props to him for turning NIU’s men’s soccer program around.

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