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Michigan counting on its experienced youth

By Steven Braid, Daily Sports Writer
Published August 15, 2011

It’s easy to take a quick glance at the Michigan women’s soccer roster and mistake it as a young and inexperienced squad.

Of the 24 players that will put on a uniform this fall, only six are upperclassmen, while 10 are completely new faces on the team.

Young, they undoubtedly are. Inexperienced, they most certainly are not.

“It’s interesting,” Michigan coach Greg Ryan said. “We have six upperclassmen out of 24 players, but we’re playing the best soccer we’ve ever played. I think part of that is that the freshmen class was so important to us last year.

“So many players in that freshmen class either started or played significant minutes and so they are going into their second year with a lot of experience and a lot of talent combined with some very good leadership from the upperclassmen. I think things are going so well even though we are young because we already have a lot of game experience for our younger players.”

For the first time in Ryan’s tenure, the Wolverines will have a lot of returners in the starting lineup, giving the team some much needed experience.

After an impressive regular season in which the Wolverines posted their first winning record in four years, Michigan reached the NCAA Tournament in 2010. Its starting lineup contained four freshmen, and of the 14 players who played in at least 16 games, six were newcomers. The offense was led by rookie Nkem Ezurike, who scored nine goals and became just the fifth freshmen to lead her team in scoring. Her classmate Tori McCombs followed suit, finishing second on the team in goals scored with five.

But while it was a talented bunch, its youth was exposed late in the season. The Wolverines did have veteran players, but too many of their significant contributors were inexperienced, as evidenced when they let a first-half lead slip away in a heartbreaking loss to No. 6 Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

However, redshirt junior defensemen Clare Stachel — one of the four senior captains — echoed Ryan’s sentiments. She believes that while it was tough at times for some of the underclassmen to take on so much responsibility last year, it wll be invaluable experience for them in the upcoming season.

“A lot of the sophomores may only be sophomores, but they had a lot of experience their freshmen year which many freshmen don’t get,” Stachel said. “Yes, we may be a young team in terms of age, but in terms of experience, they got a lot of that last year. Not only that, but five of the five seniors are in the starting lineup right now and they have four years of experience.”

While there might be just six upperclassmen, they are veterans who have seen a tremendous amount of game action.

Although three have suffered significant injuries and have missed a considerable amount of games throughout their careers, all of them have started the majority of games that they have appeared in.

With all five seniors set to make major contributions, Ryan hopes that the veteran leadership on the team will be the backbone for this young, but talented group. He saw what last year’s freshmen did in a new environment in their first year of playing college soccer, and can hardly contain his excitement when discussing their potential.

“These kids are only sophomores and they are only going to get better,” Ryan said. “I’m excited by the progress that’s already been made. Last year, Nkem played as the lone striker up top and she scored nine goals basically on her own. We’re going to play more up front this year because we have a better attacking team. She’s going to get more help and more support and I think its only going to help her scoring and will lead to more goals and more assists.”

This year’s freshmen class has also made an early impression on the veterans and staff alike. Stachel is impressed by their enthusiastic attitudes and their diligence and hard work on the field.

Ryan has been particularly impressed with midfielder Christina Murillo, who has plenty of international experience in her own right and is a hopeful for the 2012 Mexican Olympic soccer team that will compete in London.

He raved about her phenomenal passing and shooting skills and suggested that her presence has already had a huge impact on the team.

“Her creative flair, and skill, and composure are just making them a different team,” Ryan said. “She can shoot. She can score from outside the box. She takes a lot of our set plays. She already has a huge role on this team.”

Ryan knows his team is young, but he also knows that the combination of last year’s experience with this year’s talent will make a dangerous Michigan team.

“It should be a very attractive team to watch this year,” Ryan said. “It will definitely be the best soccer we’ve ever played.”