The Michigan women’s soccer team (11-4-3 overall, 5-3-2 Big Ten) entered Thursday’s matchup against No. 23 Penn State (10-6-0, 4-5) in a precarious position. The Wolverines came into the night in third place in the Big Ten, but with only three points separating third place from tenth, they needed at least a draw to solidify their place in the Big Ten playoffs.
They got all that, and more, in a convincing 2-0 victory that will give them a major boost as they head into their final regular season game.
The game opened with aggressive play from the Wolverines, who started the night in a rarely-used 3-5-2 formation. The system may have looked cautious on paper, but Michigan dominated possession, forcing Penn State to spend most of their time defending. After about seven minutes, however, the Nittany Lions began to push back and the game would settle into a rhythm as the two teams grappled for possession and better field position.
However, this stable rhythm was disrupted in the 18th minute by senior midfielder Raleigh Loughman, opening the night’s scoring with a strike on a perfect cross from junior forward Danni Wolfe. The goal was Loughman’s sixth of the season and moved her into sole possession of the leading scorer title for the Wolverines.
“There was good service. There were quality runs in the box, and Raleigh was there to put it away,” Michigan coach Jennifer Klein said. “That’s something we’ve been working on all season, and we got all of it right.”
Penn State would push back immediately in an attempt to tie the game, but the Nittany Lions were unable to convert on any of their chances, and the game once again stabilized.
The rest of the half was marked by physical play from both sides, but no major chances or breakthroughs for either. A rough tackle in the box had Wolverines fans crying for a penalty late in the half, but nothing would come of it, and the half ended with Michigan leading 1-0.
The second half was a continuation of tight, back and forth play with neither team completely in control. Penn State was never able to create any serious pressure or put the Wolverines in any real danger. Even in moments when they found themselves controlling possession and pushing upfield, they were never able to convert it into anything that remotely troubled senior goalkeeper Hillary Beall, who faced only three shots all night.
The Nittany Lions continuously found themselves forced to take weak or target shots, and could get nowhere near the Wolverines’ goal. Corner kicks flew over their strikers heads, shots were rarely on target and crosses were perpetually intercepted by the Wolverines.
“I thought they played unbelievable,” Klein said of her team’s defensive performance. “The two center backs Sydney Shephard and Alia Martin did unbelievable, they’ve done a great job, and I’m just proud of them.”
The Wolverines sealed their victory late in the game with a bizarre goal from Wolfe, who had been subbed back into the game just a minute before. A long pass forward reached Penn State’s goaltender Katherine Asman who would attempt to clear the ball, but her clearance flew directly into a charging Wolfe and deflected off her thigh, soaring high into the sky before neatly nestling into the back of the net, putting the Wolverines firmly in control.
The win is a major victory for the Wolverines, who came into the matchup 1-5 against Penn State in their last six meetings.
“We always say defense wins championships,” Wolfe said. “That’s what it feels like every time we play Penn State, it feels like a championship.
“You have to dig deep, you have to find the grit, you have to play as a team. And that’s what we did tonight, and it showed not only in the result, but in the feeling we all had after the game.”