- File Photo/Daily
By Steven Braid, Daily Sports Writer
Published September 25, 2012
The Michigan women’s soccer team has played good defense before. But it’s never been this good.
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The 22nd-ranked Wolverines extended their shutout streak to five games, a program record, with a 3-0 victory over then-No. 14 Wisconsin, and are quickly becoming one of the nation’s best defensive squads. As a result, Michigan is ranked in the top-25 for the first time since 2005.
The defense is headlined by fifth-year senior goaltender Haley Kopmeyer and a back line that consists of redshirt junior Holly Hein, junior Shelina Zadorsky, junior Kayla Mannino and sophomore Chloe Sosenko.
“The personnel at the back has just been really strong,” said Michigan coach Greg Ryan. “Haley and the back four have just been stellar. Their decisions are great and their positioning has been great.”
Ever since Ryan took the helm of the program in 2008, he has helped revamp the defense. Since the 2008 season when the team allowed 32 goals, the Wolverines have improved steadily over the past few years, allowing 27 goals in 2009, a program-record 18 in 2010 and 23 last season.
But the 2012 version might possess the best defense of them all. Through 11 games, the Wolverines have allowed just four goals and are on pace to give up a meager seven scores by the end of the regular season.
Their .361 goals-against average places them fifth nationally and their .727 shutout percentage ranks fourth.
“I think, honestly, one of the big changes this year is having Holly in the back,” Kopmeyer said. “She complements Shelina so well, and it’s really important to have center backs that are leaders that are vocal, that are ball winners, that are soccer-savvy (and) that don’t make mistakes. They mesh so well together and have really taken this defense to a new level.”
Hein, who is playing her first full season as a defender, has taken on a substantial leadership role. While Zadorsky was in Japan competing for the Canadian national team during the under-20 women’s World Cup in late August and early September, Hein won a Big Ten defensive player of the week award and helped integrate freshman Sydney Raguse and Sosenko, who played as a midfielder last season, into the defensive rotation.
With Zadorsky back in the lineup, the defense has been nothing short of dominant. They have recorded a program-record five straight shutouts and have boosted their possession rates from 2011. During their shutout streak, the Wolverines blanked Minnesota and Golden Gopher sophomore standout Taylor Uhl, 1-0. Uhl entered the matchup as the nation’s second-leading scorer with 11 goals.
“It’s no coincidence,” Ryan said. “Having (Zadorsky) back has made a big and immediate impact on our team.”
That ability to control the ball for longer possessions has eased the burden on Kopmeyer, who is on pace to see the least amount of shots on goal in a season during her collegiate career. Last year, she saw 138 shots. This fall, though she broke the all-time program record for saves, Kopmeyer has seen just 43 shots and has benefitted mightily from the decreased workload.
Kopmeyer’s .907 save percentage ranks sixth in the nation and she has already matched her season high with six shutouts. She also had a hand in two other shutouts — the team’s eight blank slates lead the nation.
“I know Haley doesn’t like to talk about numbers or stats, but they do speak to how well she has been playing and attest to all the hard work she’s put in and I think it definitely shows,” Mannino said.
Kopmeyer has always been a steady presence in net for the Wolverines, but according to Ryan, she has taken her game to a new level. She credits her enhanced performances to improved fitness.
“I play in the summer — I’ve always done that — but I think this summer especially, I worked a lot on my fitness,” Kopmeyer said. “Outside of soccer I got really into just running a lot and working on getting myself into the best shape of my life.”
But what might be most impressive about the back line this season is that it has given a boost to the offense.