By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 8, 2012
A decade has passed since the Michigan women’s soccer team last hosted an NCAA Tournament game.
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So when the current Wolverines squad learned they would play the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Central Michigan in the friendly confines of the U-M Soccer Complex, they were understandably excited. Besides having the opportunity to showcase the program on a national level, the Wolverines (8-3-2 Big Ten, 14-5-2 overall) earned themselves a second chance to win their final home match.
Crowded into its locker room, the team applauded and hugged when the selection was announced.
“There were cheers all around the room,” said Michigan coach Greg Ryan.
Perhaps no two players were more animated than redshirt seniors Haley Kopmeyer and Clare Stachel. Since arriving on campus in 2008, Kopmeyer and Stachel have helped rebuild the women’s soccer program. In Ryan’s first year, Kopmeyer suffered a season-ending injury and the Wolverines stumbled to a last-place finish in the Big Ten. The following season, Stachel was hurt in the preseason as Michigan improved slightly to eighth in the conference.
But a new soccer complex and the appeal of a world-class head coach have piqued the interest of recruits across North America, and the results have finally shown this season. The Wolverines rose as high as No. 17 in the national polls and finished third in the Big Ten, but lost to Illinois on senior night. That bothered the team, which felt that the overtime loss wasn’t the proper sendoff for two players who have given so much to the program. It also upset Kopmeyer, who didn’t want her final appearance at the U-M Soccer Complex to end in defeat. She hoped for a second chance.
“It really would be a dream come true (to host an NCAA Tournament game),” Kopmeyer said last week. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
Michigan lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals, but earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. It welcomes Central Michigan (9-2 Mid-American Conference, 15-6-1) on Saturday night.
The Wolverines are quite familiar with the Chippewas, who battled to a scoreless draw in Ann Arbor in 2011. Central Michigan — which received the MAC’s first-ever at-large bid — is anchored by a stout defense that has allowed just five goals in its last 10 matches. Led by MAC Defensive Player of the Year Bailey Brandon and all-MAC goalkeeper Stefanie Turner, the Chippewas’ defensive unit has recorded 11 shutouts this season.
Though Central Michigan will field a similar squad to the one that struggled offensively against Michigan last season, it boasts a new weapon in forward Danielle Rotheram. The freshman leads the Chippewas in goals, assists and points, and catalyzes Central Michigan’s attack. Rotheram is one of 14 different Chippewa players to have scored this year.
The Wolverines will counter with one of the Big Ten’s best back lines. The defense leads the conference in shutouts and goals-against average and is helmed by Kopmeyer, the 2012 Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year.
Offensively, junior forward Nkem Ezurike has recorded 13 goals this season for Michigan, good for fourth in the Big Ten. If the Wolverines can keep possession of the ball, they will push their wing midfielders forward to create more attacking opportunities. Freshman midfielder Corinne Harris and junior midfielder Meghan Toohey both provide an extra dimension to Michigan’s attack that wasn’t present last season.
“We’re a much better team this year than we were last year,” Ryan said.
The Chippewas and Wolverines played just three common opponents this season. Both squads defeated Detroit, 1-0, in late August. Central Michigan was also blown out at then-No. 6 Penn State and was blanked by Purdue in non-conference contests. Michigan beat the Boilermakers and tied the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley as part of Big Ten play. But regular-season result won’t matter when the opening whistle sounds.
“They’re a better team (than last year),” Ryan said. “It’s going to be a very tough game.”
A lot has happened in 10 years. Ryan has coached two different programs: the Michigan women and the U.S. women’s national team. The Wolverines have called three different stadiums home. And Michigan has suffered through some of its bleakest days as a program. But on Saturday, Stachel and Kopmeyer — who brought the team to this moment — will finally see their dream become reality.