- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published August 13, 2013
With 20 minutes remaining in the second half, senior forward Nkem Ezurike received the ball nearly 30 yards away from the net right to her chest. Effortlessly, she brought the ball down to her feet and squared up to the net, while simultaneously thrusting the defender aside with one arm.
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She followed it up with a strike to the upper-right corner, too quick for a diving goaltender to even come close, for the third goal of the game in the No. 19 Michigan women’s soccer team’s 5-0 exhibition win over Western Michigan.
Michigan coach Greg Ryan watched on, applauding his player but barely breaking the straight and focused face he held all game.
“I told the girls, ‘Save a few of those for the season,’ ” he said.
Ezurike and the offense struggled in the first half, recording just seven shots, only one of which came on goal. But the performance in the first half was enough to wear down the Bronco defense in the second half, when the Michigan offense scored all five of its goals.
Ryan, who continually referenced his team’s fitness and depth, managed to play 28 different athletes on Tuesday, many of which came out in the first half.
“In the second half, we were playing quicker than they could chase us,” Ryan said. “I think that’s where you saw the chances come out of.”
Ezurike open the scoring just six minutes into the half before scoring her third goal with 20 minutes left. A returning first-team All-Big Ten selection, Ezurike looked in midseason form after a season in which she scored 15 goals.
“It’s always nice to come in and score goals,” Ezurike said. “It’s a good start, but hopefully it just continues.”
Yet Ezurike and the offense also benefitted from the strong attacking play of freshman forward Madisson Lewis, who added two assists and nearly finished with a goal of her own.
Lewis, the 2012 Michigan soccer player of the year, headlines a strong freshman class that contributed to the Wolverines early dominance Tuesday. Lewis could help alleviate some of the pressure put on Ezurike — who faced double teams, as she frequently does — by adding an extra threat up front.
“Maybe what we learned today is that our most effective attacking style is in a two front,” Ryan said.
Added Ezurike: “It’s nice to have freshmen come in first game and do so well. It’s just nice to get everyone and get everyone in the feel of the game.”
Ryan started two other freshmen against Western Michigan, including goalkeeper Taylor Bucklin. Bucklin saw 70 minutes of action before junior Zaryn Jennings came in, but neither faced enough action to stand above the other.
That might have been due a dominant defense that not only kept the ball well out of reach of the goalkeeper, but also maintained possession and pushed the ball forward. Michigan’s defense proved its physicality early on, managing to move forwards off the ball while committing just three fouls.
“They were very solid and very organized,” Ryan said. “Just a fantastic effort by the back line.”
Senior defender Shelina Zadorsky spurred that charge, highlighted by her goal in the 65th minute. After throwing the ball in, Zadorsky received the pass from sophomore forward Corrine Harris and proceeded to cross the ball. Her cross went above the head of Bronco goalkeeper Kaitlyn Collin and into the bottom-right corner of the net.
Zadorsky, along with fellow senior defender Holly Hein, will benefit from an even stronger defense that recorded 17 shutouts last season. Junior transfer Olivia Brannon will be one reason as she returns from an injury to the meniscus in her knee. Brannon played for the longest period time in over a year when she recorded 53 minutes Tuesday.
“You could just see her experience in the back,” Ryan said. “I think she’s just got to play her way back into fitness. You can see by the way she plays … she plays like a pro men’s player because she’s so smart.”
And if Tuesday’s impressive plays are any indication of what’s to come, then the Wolverines could be in for another extended season.
“It’s a lot for a team to have to deal with,” Ryan said. “Believe me, I know, because when I first came here, every team was a lot for us to deal with. But right now, I think we’re providing some problems for other teams.”