Molly Garrett won the draw and surged headlong into the teeth of the Jacksonville defense.
As the junior midfielder sprinted towards the goal, the best regular season in Michigan women’s lacrosse history faded further and further into the past. In its place, dreamland drew closer.
Garrett snapped her stick forward, firing the ball past Dolphin goalkeeper Dayna Martinetto and into the net. 1-0, Wolverines.
Just nine seconds earlier, Michigan officially appeared in its first-ever NCAA Tournament game.
Now, it had its first-ever NCAA Tournament goal.
And two hours later, the Wolverines had their first-ever NCAA Tournament win, a 13-9 win over the Dolphins on Friday at UM Lacrosse Stadium behind hat-tricks from Garrett, sophomore attacker Caitlin Muir and senior attacker Adriana Pendino.
“It’s just great to get back to the winner’s side,” said Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen. “The girls are just really soaking up this experience. It’s the first time they’ve been here without school, first time they’ve got to play in the official postseason. Every little experience, we want them to enjoy.”
Garrett’s goal had Michigan seeming poised to cruise. Jacksonville didn’t even control the ball until the game’s third minute — after which the Wolverines had added two more goals to their lead.
They weren’t done, either. Senior goalkeeper Mira Shane snuffed out the Dolphins’ first threat with a high save, and Muir capped off the initial burst by dancing around the net before firing a low shot to give Michigan a 4-0 lead and forcing Jacksonville to pull Martinetto.
But the Wolverines’ honeymoon ended quickly. The Dolphins eased back into the game and had an answer for every subsequent threat, going into halftime down just 7-5. Garrett’s missile-like transition attacks gave way to heroics from Shane, whose 11 saves were the biggest reason Michigan held onto its first-half lead.
“They came out and they had a point to prove. They came out not scared,” Nielsen said. “In the second half of the first half, Jacksonville really made a run back and we played on our heels a little bit, and thankfully for that fast start, we had the buffer that we needed.
“We said to them at halftime, we gotta keep playing like we did in that first five minutes: playing hard, no fear, just going hard after it.”
Much of that fell to Pendino, the Wolverines’ leading scorer. Held scoreless in the first half, the senior scored three times in the next 20 minutes to put the win on ice.
With a 12-8 lead and Michigan in the midst of an 11-minute scoring drought, Pendino capped off a long run off possession by darting to her right and uncorking a shot into the bottom of the net.
Pendino threw her stick to the side as she embraced her teammates. They were making history, and they all knew it. With just under four minutes to play, it was starting to show.
“We have a set of goals in our locker room, one of them being, win our first-round NCAA game,” Pendino said, “and (checking it off) was the first thing we did when we walked back in, and it’s just amazing.”
Michigan’s postseason run will continue on Sunday against Denver. Beat the Pioneers, and a whole new set of firsts will be achieved.
And that’s why, as Nielsen, Garrett, Pendino and Shane rattled off the typical postgame fare — “game by game, keep it going” — it hardly seemed like cliche. For the six-year-old program, every victory at this stage is a moment to savor — in Garrett’s words, “all excitement.”
“Hannah, as our leader, is very good at teaching us to celebrate and enjoy, live in the moment,” Pendino said. “But while doing that, our season’s not over yet. We have more goals and things that we want to accomplish.”
Can they accomplish them?
That all comes back to Nielsen and the culture she has created. The Wolverines are happy to be here, sure, but without the perjorative of being “just” happy to be here — they know they’re capable of more.
“She just instills in all of us to believe in ourselves and believe in the team and what we are capable of, that was our message from day one,” Garrett said. “Stepping onto the field having that confidence that we can win.”
And in the jubilation of Michigan’s maiden postseason win, even the second-year coach, who holds, by her own admission, sky-high expectations for what her team can accomplish, allowed herself time to enjoy the fruits of her labor. But not for too long.
“We want to keep this thing going. We can’t take off now,” Nielsen said. “It won’t be too much of an enjoyment period for me, unfortunately. It’s on to the next one.”