Zulfiqar Ahmed | Northern Star
With a rousing 2-1 win Saturday over the 19th-ranked University of Akron Zips, the 16th-ranked NIU men’s soccer team won the Mid-American Conference regular-season championship and clinched the No.1 seed in the MAC Tournament.
The Huskies, who will also serve as host of the MAC tournament, had a remarkable season that saw them go on a nine-game winning streak, including a seven-game shutout streak that totaled 714 minutes and 40 seconds.
“It is a tremendous accomplishment for our team, for our program and for the athletic department to win this one,” NIU head coach Ryan Swan said in a Saturday NIU Athletics news release. “I’m really proud of the guys, they have been bought in all year. It comes to a head today, but throughout the season, this was the goal, to win the conference regular-season championship and push the season on as long as we can.”
Senior forward Nick Markanich led the nation in goals for most of the season and put himself in contention for MAC Player of the Year.
“It took too long,” Markanich said. “It took four years, and we deserve It. I’m so happy we got it.”
Markanich’s late-game heroics against Akron sealed the game for the Huskies ensuring that the team will have its home fans in front of them all tournament long, which should be a big advantage.
“I think the fans have been unbelievable all season,” sophomore defenseman Harry Jolley said. “We are going to need them at times in the playoffs, as we have in the regular season, and I think that was the most important part in making sure we had home field advantage.”
The 2020-21 season saw NIU finish with a 5-8-1 record and short of a MAC tournament appearance. It is safe to say that a lot has changed in one year.
“We have just bought into the whole idea,” redshirt junior forward Enrique Banuelos said. “The coaches have a vision, and we have just gone with it. We are attacking and defending together. We are training with everything we have and giving our best.”
This will be the first time since 2006 that the Huskies will have home field advantage and play in front of a home crowd in the MAC tournament. It can make a big difference.
“It’s huge,” senior defensemen Anthony Markanich said. “It’s a massive advantage. We are happy to be at home. Hopefully, our friends and family come out again with their big support, and we are happy to be home again. I’m also happy this isn’t my last home game.”
The Huskies will be looking to secure their first MAC championship since 2011, when they defeated the University of Western Michigan 1-0 in the final. Sean Totsch, now a midfielder for the Louisville City Soccer Club in the United Soccer league, won the MVP for the Huskies in the tournament.
NIU’s previous championship before that came in 2006 when they defeated Akron at home to win their first ever conference title. Joe Zimka was named the MVP for the Huskies.
NIU finished conference play with a 4-0-2 record, just eking out the advantage over the University of West Virginia Mountaineers, who finished conference play with a 3-1-1 record. That one loss was to the Huskies.
The Huskies will play the University of Portland pilots in Portland, Oregon at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday to close out the regular season before returning home to host the MAC tournament, with the semifinals slated to start on Nov. 11. Additional details about the conference tournament will be made available soon.