Michigan soars to first place in Big Ten with win over Illinois
Sarah Stratigakis passed the ball across the pitch to her right, where her teammate was open for the finish. Sophomore midfielder Raleigh Loughman shot and found the bottom of the net for the first of the Michigan women’s soccer team’s four goals against Illinois. For the second consecutive game, the Wolverines scored four times. This time, the offensive barrage came late in the game, with two goals in the final 10 minutes.
With their second straight 4-1 victory and seventh win in their last 10 games, the Wolverines (11-3-1 overall, 6-1-1 Big Ten) have caught fire with just three games left in the season.
Loughman, whose performance against the Fighting Illini helped her earn Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors, scored on both of her shots on goal and added an assist on a second-half goal by freshman forward Danielle Wolfe.
Wolfe, who was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week as a result of her scoring outburst against Illinois, scored her first goal since the Wolverines' opener against Marshall on August 22. In 32 minutes off the bench, Wolfe scored twice on five shots, including a goal in the 88th minute that all but sealed a victory for Michigan.
“It’s really great for us when we have Raleigh score two goals and also have a freshman in Danielle that can score off the bench,” said Michigan coach Jennifer Klein.
Thanks to the pair of multi-goal performances, the Wolverines have advanced into first place in the Big Ten, one point above Wisconsin, which is currently undefeated in conference play. At this point in the season, Michigan and Wisconsin, with 19 and 18 points, respectively, are a step ahead of the rest of the conference, with the next two teams, Iowa and Penn State, having only 15 points each.
Consequently, both teams appear to be locks for a top-four seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which would give them home-field advantage through the quarterfinal and potentially semifinal and final rounds, if the Wolverines make it that far.
“We (might) need some help,” Klein said. “But it’s certainly something we want in the end.”
Winning the Big Ten Tournament is Michigan’s most surefire route to the NCAA Women’s Soccer Tournament, as doing so would earn them an automatic bid, but it’s a tough task. The Wolverines haven’t won the tournament since the 1999-2000 season.
This year has been a breakout season for Michigan, which currently sits at No. 19 spot in the most recent United Soccer Coaches Poll. The Wolverines will finish with at least 11 wins for the first time since 2015 and have just one loss in conference play — a 2-0 loss at the hands of Wisconsin, currently ranked No. 10 in the aforementioned poll.
As a result, the team will almost surely receive an at-large bid — even if they fail to win the Big Ten Tournament — and return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years.
Friday night's offensive output from Loughman and Wolfe move the Michigan one step closer to that goal.