SportsMonday Column: A fairytale and a title
Billy Stevens still hadn’t let go of the trophy.
Not when he got on the bus to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Not when he landed in Detroit. Not for the bus ride back to Ann Arbor, either. He said he couldn’t let it out of his sight.
And really, can you blame him?
The Michigan men’s soccer team was the Big Ten champion. It took 104 minutes, but the 19th-ranked Wolverines topped No. 9 Maryland, 2-1, in College Park.
No one could have seen this coming.
Last season, the Wolverines finished with four wins in 19 games. Two years before that, Stevens came to Ann Arbor as a member of the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, only to finish with six victories.
But Michigan held a meeting after the 2016 season, one that ended with an unsurprising loss to the top-ranked Terrapins. Stevens doesn’t remember exactly when it happened. He remembers what it was about.
A core group of upperclassmen gathered with coach Chaka Daley, intent on getting this team on the same page. As Stevens admitted, in the past, that wasn’t the case. Players would sulk. They would talk under their breath. But in the meeting, that was all buried. A new path began.
“Once some guy sees you bought in, they’re like, ‘Alright well I’m gonna have to buy in too, otherwise I’m not gonna be able to fit well on this team,’ ” Stevens said. “There was just no room for anybody who did not want to buy into this team. And you could see it tonight.”
Yes, you could. It took 104 minutes, and it took soul searching. But the Wolverines had captured their first conference title in school history, 17 years after the program’s inception.
As for that No. 2 recruiting class, there were just two left to hold that trophy Sunday: Tristan Jacob, and Stevens.
Ask Stevens if he expected this, and even he can’t tell you completely.
He will reflect on his first year, when Michigan had no choice but to play a brand of soccer it didn’t want to.
He will reflect on the moments when the talent gradually started to fall into place.
And he will admit that he has been thinking about it for the last few days. It’s for all those reasons that this is that much sweeter.
“You just can’t make these things up man,” Stevens said. “… I mean, I’m so proud of this group of guys, and it’s just like a fairytale ending, man.
“Did we dream about being champs?” Daley said. “Absolutely. You always do. But did we think it could be a reality after last year and the disappointment?”
He didn’t have to think about it.
After all, his vision came to fruition. He wanted Michigan to keep things in perspective. He wanted the Wolverines to put themselves in a situation where they controlled their own destiny at the end of the the season.
Now, that’s exactly what they’re doing. They just needed a little bit of luck to get there.
During the game, Daley asked his staff if it was true at least four times. He asked the director of operations, too. They checked four or five different websites. They checked Facebook. They checked Twitter.
Finally, they were certain. Michigan State had tied Indiana. If it had gone any other way, the Wolverines would have never had a chance at a Big Ten title. Instead, it was theirs for the taking.
He told Robbie Mertz first, when the junior midfielder subbed on in the 71st minute.
Mertz spread the word around, but his message didn’t reach everybody.
Then came Stevens’ injury in the 80th minute — one that he would later say was never going to keep him off the field Sunday night.
That’s when everyone found out, for good, what was at stake. Score a goal, go home Big Ten champions.
“We went for it, no question about it,” Daley said. “We went for it.”
They got it.
Jack Hallahan sent in a cross from the left wing. Mohammed Zakyi stretched as far as humanly possible, and still couldn’t get his foot to it. But Francis Atuahene was on the back post at the perfect time, getting just enough of his foot on the ball to notch the golden goal.
Stevens watched it over and over again.
“Once it went in, everybody’s hearts just dropped,” Stevens said, “and you just couldn’t believe it.”
We believe you now, Billy.
Even if you still don’t.
Santo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Kevin_M_Santo.