- Erin Kirkland/Daily
By Jake Lourim, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 31, 2013
The Michigan women’s soccer team must win Saturday to preserve a chance at home-field advantage through the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
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But it must do so against Ohio State, on the Wolverines’ emotional senior night, for their first win over the Buckeyes since 2008.
And that still might not be enough to give the Wolverines their first-ever regular-season Big Ten championship.
No. 8 Michigan (8-1-1 Big Ten, 14-2-1 overall) enters Saturday’s showdown with the Buckeyes (4-4-2, 10-5-3) riding a seven-game winning streak that dates back to Sept. 29, but first-place Nebraska has matched the Wolverines win for win — including a double-overtime upset of Penn State on Sunday.
Even Michigan’s 2-1 victory at Nebraska (9-1, 14-3-1) on Oct. 6 wasn’t enough to springboard the Wolverines in the Big Ten standings.
“It’s especially frustrating because, head-to-head, we beat Nebraska,” said senior defender Kayla Mannino. “But regardless of how Nebraska does on Friday, I’m still going to be proud of this team and the season we’ve had.”
Now, Michigan has just one more chance for a Nebraska loss: Indiana (6-4-0, 13-4-1) in Lincoln. The catch is that the game is Friday, which means the Wolverines are split between not wanting to find out the score and being the biggest Indiana soccer fans in the country.
“I’ll look, I think,” said senior defender Holly Hein with a smile. “I’ll want to know.”
Added Mannino: “It’s kind of a split amongst our team. I personally am not going to watch it. I don’t want to know about it.”
If Indiana’s upset bid does fall short, Michigan still has plenty to play for the next day. The seniors have never beaten Ohio State, and the rivalry will always be there.
“We’re happy to have one of the best finishes — regardless of what happens this weekend — in Michigan soccer history,” Hein said. “We’d be even (happier) if it goes our way this weekend, but we’ll see.”
On top of it all, Michigan is playing for home-field advantage in the NCAA Tournament. The top 32 teams play one home game, and the top eight play three. This week, Michigan sits right on the edge in eighth but will have to wait out the selection show after the Big Ten Tournament.
The last time the two rivals met, Ohio State ousted Michigan from the Big Ten Tournament.
Ryan said the game should be like most others the Wolverines have played, a physical Big Ten battle. His team practiced playing that style all week.
Hein said one of the team’s goals this week has been to start faster. The Wolverines haven’t scored in the first 23 minutes of the game since Oct. 3 at Michigan State.
Michigan has, however, balanced out its scoring in recent games. Seven different players have tallied its last eight goals.
Hein said starting fast wouldn’t be a problem despite the emotion before the game. The seniors will be honored before the game with their parents. Hein, who is from Castaic, Calif., is playing in front of her whole family for the first time since high school.
“To be honest, I’ve been trying not to think about it too much,” Mannino said. “Emotionally, I don’t know how I’m going to feel about it until Saturday, when I step on the field. I still haven’t really accepted it.”
Still, Ryan and the players refuse to acknowledge the stakes, focusing only on their matchup with the Buckeyes.
“It’s not tough for me, and I don’t think it’s tough for the players,” Ryan said. “If we get help from Indiana, great. If not, we still finished better than any Michigan team in the history of the program.”