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Michigan, Penn State alumni mend rivalry in Seattle

Patrick Barron/Daily
Former Michigan goalie Haley Kopmeyer had her Big Ten hopes dashed by Christine Nairn, but as teammates on Seattle Reign FC, the two lived together. Buy this photo

By Jake Lourim, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 16, 2013

Last year was former Michigan goalie Haley Kopmeyer’s last shot at the Big Ten title she came to Michigan to win. Late in the season, she went into State College needing a victory. It was the 86th minute. Former Penn State forward Christine Nairn drew a penalty kick.

Nairn converted, and Michigan’s goal of a Big Ten title would have to wait.

If you follow Michigan women’s soccer, you know the rest: Penn State clinches its 15th straight Big Ten title with a tie, the Nittany Lions earn home-field advantage through the third round of the NCAA Tournament, then beat Michigan in a penalty-kick shootout.

Just outside Seattle this summer, Kopmeyer and Nairn, the two Big Ten rivals, set aside their collegiate roots.

They played four years each at Michigan and Penn State, compiling two of the most illustrious careers in the history of their schools. They moved 2,000 miles west. And then they lived together for six months.

Teammates on the Seattle Reign FC of the National Women’s Soccer League, Kopmeyer and Nairn, both 2012 graduates, shared an apartment this summer.

“We talked about it a lot,” Kopmeyer said. “This was our common bond to begin with. It was definitely a topic, whose school is better, a little bit of smack talk here and there, but nothing too mean.”

When they were drafted in January, they didn’t know much about each other, even after playing against one another for four years. They had gone to a camp together before college. Then, Kopmeyer sent a Facebook message to Nairn asking if she wanted to live with her.

They found an apartment 10 minutes from the training facility. But the situation didn’t come without its occasional Michigan-Penn State debates.

“We’re both the type of people where we know we can joke with each other,” Nairn said. “When we dish it out, we can take it. It’s all in good fun.”

The two have moved out since the end of the season last August. Kopmeyer now lives in San Diego and trains with a goalkeeping coach in preparation for next season in April. She was waived last year because she backed up Hope Solo, who happens to be the starter for the U.S. Women’s National Team.

Nairn lives and trains in State College and called the women’s soccer game between Michigan and Penn State for Big Ten Network on Sunday.

Though now living 3,000 miles apart, the two anticipated the rivalry game when their former teams played Sunday.

“We joked about it a lot, the Penn State-Michigan thing and always playing against each other,” Kopmeyer said. “There were times when even in practice, our coaches could see it. … They thought it was funny, and they could tell that there was definitely a rivalry there.”

The stakes were high as always this year, with Michigan needing a win to stay in the Big Ten race and Penn State needing a win to stay in contention for its 16th straight conference championship.

In the end, the Wolverines came out with the narrow victory, something they hadn’t done against Penn State since 2002.

“Going down in penalty kicks, especially the way it happened when we were up, that was hard,” Kopmeyer said. “I was cheering (Sunday) like I was on the sidelines.

“It’s so fun to see how far this team has come. I’m so proud and happy to have been a part of it. I realize that a lot of my time there was spent growing as a team and rebuilding and putting together (Michigan coach Greg Ryan’s) vision, and it’s really here now. I couldn’t be happier for those girls.”

Kopmeyer said she and Nairn talked back and forth on social media about the game. She posted a picture last Wednesday of Nairn holding Kopmeyer’s dog in a Michigan collar. Nairn replied with a picture of her four Big Ten championship rings.

“I know the Michigan girls all knew about it, and they were like, ‘Don’t worry, girl, we got your back,’ ” Kopmeyer said.

They likely won’t room together again next year because Kopmeyer may be playing for a new team. Still, both enjoyed living together this summer.

“Haley’s hilarious,” Nairn said. “She’s so smart. Sometimes she’s making fun of me, and I have no idea that she is.”

Michigan and Penn State will continue to wrestle with the conference lead along with Nebraska. The Wolverines are two points back in the standings, while the Nittany Lions are three. They could meet again in the Big Ten or NCAA Tournaments.

Other than that, the rivalry will be put to bed until next year, when Kopmeyer, Nairn and their schools will start it up all over again.