- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 25, 2012
It’s a scene that has played out at every home game this season.
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The catchy tune of the latest pop hit blasts through the crisp fall air at the U-M Soccer Complex. On the pitch, members of the Michigan women’s soccer team bounce from left to right, dancing and laughing.
Minutes before kickoff, they are relaxed, confident and composed. But when the whistle blows, they dominate.
This season, the Wolverines (7-1-2 Big Ten, 13-3-2 overall) are undefeated at home. In the process, they have outscored opponents 21-3, recorded six shutouts, and they have defeated three opponents in overtime. On Sunday night, No. 24 Michigan will host Illinois in the friendly confines of the U-M Soccer Complex with a chance to guarantee the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. With a win, or a tie, the Wolverines will become just the second team in the program’s history to complete an undefeated home schedule.
For the Wolverines to beat the Fighting Illini, they will have to slow down Vanessa DiBernardo. The midfielder leads Illinois (5-4-1, 8-7-2) with six goals and an assist this season, including a hat trick against Michigan State earlier this month. At just 5-foot-4, the diminutive junior won’t pose much of a threat in the air, but her speed will force Michigan’s defense to be cautious when she has the ball.
When the Wolverines attack, they will face a struggling back line that has surrendered two or more goals in four of its last five contests. During that stretch, the Illini dropped three games and fell to sixth in the conference. The defense is led by goalkeeper Steph Panozzo, the 2011 Big Ten Tournament defensive MVP.
If Michigan earns a win, it will finish second in the conference — its best result since 2002. If it loses, it will finish third, unless Ohio State also loses its game at Indiana. And if the Wolverines tie, it will take a Buckeye victory to drop Michigan to third.
But regardless of Sunday’s result against the Illini, the match will likely mark the last home contest of a successful 2012 campaign. Just as it’s done all year, the team will face the stands and begin to chant “The Victors.”
The fans who pack the U-M Soccer Complex will join them, their breath visible in the chilly October air.
As the Wolverines jog into their locker room for the last time this season, children will hold handmade signs over the railing and ask for autographs, just as they have all year. Parents will smile and wave and yell their congratulations. Music will blare out of the speakers.
And as the minutes pass, the music will shut off, the parents will escort their children out to the parking lot, and the murmur of the crowd will lessen until silence and a brightly illuminated soccer field are all that remain.