Just one year ago, the Michigan women’s soccer team was excluded from the 2012 NCAA women’s soccer preseason rankings, hinting that another subpar season was on the horizon. But it proved its doubters wrong en route to one of its most successful seasons in program history, compiling a 16-5-3 record and ultimately earning a NCAA Sweet 16 bid.
The Wolverines put years of mediocrity in the past, establishing themselves on the national stage. Now entering his sixth year as head coach, Greg Ryan’s new team begins the season ranked No. 19 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America preseason poll.
Last year’s ranking did little to change the expectations, and that same could be said of this year.
“(The ranking) is a tribute to the players last year and their tremendous job,” Ryan said. “Rankings are nice, but it puts a target on our backs and other teams will shoot for us to knock off a ranked team. What it really means is that we have to be better than last year and have to play harder.”
It’s clear success looms in the future for this year’s Wolverines. Veteran leadership combined with young talent has the potential to earn Michigan a trip to North Carolina, the site of the NCAA Championship, in late December.
But Michigan can’t help but notice the game versus Penn State. The Nittany Lions defeated the Wolverines in penalty kicks to eliminate Michigan from the NCAA tournament. Each time the two squads faced off the match ended in a draw.
Added Hein: “It would mean a lot (to beat Penn State). They are the number one team to beat this year. They have won so many Big Ten championships and we want one of those.
“We’re going to get a win against them this year and we know that.”
With that ranking in mind, The Daily breaks down the 2013 season, position by position.
The Wolverines return nine starters, highlighted by their top goal scorer, senior forward Nkem Ezurike — who already netted a hat trick in Tuesday’s 5-0 exhibition win over Western Michigan. Last year, Ezurike was an All-Big Ten first-team selection even after she missed the first four matches of the season playing for Canada at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.
Ezurike, who will be sure to draw added defenders because of her exceptional speed and size, has learned to adapt to the extra attention that comes with the role.
“You just have to play your game basically,” Ezurike said. “I try not to focus on who’s around me, really, just play simple and connect with my teammates.”
But it doesn’t end with Ezurike, who was No. 21 in TopDrawerSoccer.com’s National Top 100.
Sophomore Corrine Harris stepped in during Tuesday’s exhibition and came out faster and more aggressive than the rest of the field, pushing the ball down and spreading the field as opposed to shooting from distance. Harris was named to the All-Big Ten freshmen team last year after she scored three goals and added five assists in 19 starts.
Michigan will look to utilize freshman Maddison Lewis’s speed to create more chances for Ezurike by spreading the field and taking defenders away from her. Tuesday’s exhibition against Western Michigan provided a glimpse at how successful the offense can be with a an extra forward.
Lewis, who was a member of the United States U-17 Women’s National Team player pool, was named the Gatorade Michigan State Girls Soccer Player of the Year. The freshman registered two assists in her first game with the Wolverines.
“(Lewis) is an exceptionally fast forward and a very confident finisher,” Ryan said. “We will get her more chances and she will score more goals.”
Michigan’s midfield corps should remain intact as all four starters return this year. The loss of former fifth-year senior Clare Stachel means the lose of veteran leadership and all of three goals last year, but the midfield should still be loaded with experience.
Senior captain Meghan Toohey will lead the midfield after she was named a member of the All-big Ten second team last year. Toohey recorded three goals and six assists in 2012, but her most important contribution will be providing durability year round, giving Ryan one less thing to worry about.
Junior Christina Murillo and senior Kayla Mannino are also expected to see time as starters this season, both of whom should benefit from more time playing alongside the same teammates. The pair combined for one goal and five assists last year, but with a strong defense behind them, they should be able to push the ball farther this year.
Senior Tori McCombs will also bring experience and durability that should compensate for her lack of a scoring touch last year. McCombs scored just two goals with four assists in 11 starts, but could put up better numbers when the field is spread out.
Aside from the offense, the defense remains anchored by fifth-year senior Holly Hein and senior captain Shelina Zadorsky, both of whom are also ranked in TopDrawerSoccer.com’s Top 100. Hein and Zadorsky played a big part in helping the Wolverines to 13 shutouts last season, and with another year of offseason training, the duo’s chemistry only grew stronger.
“They both played together in Ottawa, Canada this summer,” Ryan said. “Their ability to read and connect with each other is fantastic.”
Added Hein: “We both demand a lot of each other and it keeps accountable for one another.”
And this year, the two seniors will have more additional help.
Michigan will give a heavy look to freshman Anna Soccorsi to help maintain an already star-studded defense. The Yardley, Pa., native enters the year after being named the 2012 Prep Player of the Year by the New Jersey Star-Ledger.
“Anna Saccrosi is equally as fast (as Lewis), and I mean exceptionally fast,” Ryan said. “Anna is impossible to outrun. Against Penn State, who has very fast forwards, Anna will be looked at.”
“We haven’t had kids with this kind of speed since I’ve been here at Michigan,” Ryan said.
In January, Ryan announced the transfer of Olivia Brannon, one of the nation’s premier defenders. Brannon, the former Gatorade Michigan State Player of the Year and Michigan Miss Soccer, will join the Wolverines after a two-year stint with the University of Virginia.
“Her ability to read the game and play the game is amazing,” Ryan said. “She knows the game so well and I think she’ll have a great year for us.”
Brannon brings years of international competition to the Wolverines, participating on the United States National Team’s under-20 squad.
“It’s probably the best defensive unit I’ve had in coaching college soccer,” Ryan said.
While gaining Brannon and a star-studded recruiting class, Michigan did see player losses affect one key cog in its success last year. The Wolverines will be without the goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer.
Just after graduation, Seattle Reign FC made the Big Ten Goalie of the Year its fourth-round selection in the National Women’s Soccer League draft.
Kopmeyer’s void inherently provided a goalie competition for the Wolverines. Sophomore Maddie Clarfield, junior Zaryn Jennings and freshman Taylor Bucklin are vying for the starting position. Neither Clarfield nor Jennings saw significant minutes last season stuck behind Kopmeyer, meaning all three goalkeepers are relatively inexperienced.
But Bucklin entered the competition with an impressive résumé. The freshman goalkeeper played for the Canadian U-17 Women’s National Team and started for Canada at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan. There is no doubt the Conn. native will be looked to handily replace Kopmeyer.
“Taylor Bucklin is our number one goalkeeper and we’re very confident in her,” Ryan said. “She’s extremely mature for being a freshman, and with our defense in front of her, plus her talent, we will be solid. We have depth in goal, which is great for competition, but Taylor is our go-to goalkeeper and she knows she has to work to maintain that spot.”
Daily Sorts Writer Greg Garno contributed reporting.