The final whistle blew, sending senior captain and defender Billy Stevens to the turf, his face buried in his hands. Just two minutes earlier, Colgate’s Aram Ouligian rose above the Michigan soccer team’s defense to fire home a powerful header and give his team a 3-2 lead in the round-of-32 match of the NCAA Tournament.
It was a position Stevens held long after the Colgate celebrations had subsided, trying to come to grips with the end of a dream season for the Wolverines.
This position and rush of emotion for Stevens came in stark contrast to his heroic senior night four weeks ago, in which a second consecutive shutout gave Michigan its fifth win in six tries.
That night, Stevens found himself tossed in the air, hoisted by teammates to the metaphorical and physical peak of his four-year career in Ann Arbor. Four days later, he was holding a Big Ten championship trophy.
Tonight, his defense — the same one that had conceded a mere 16 goals in 17 regular season games — was suddenly the team’s weakness, much as it had been in a 4-1 loss to Wisconsin the Big Ten Tournament.
After the Wolverines took a 2-0 lead behind two strikes from sophomore midfielder Jack Hallahan, Colgate turned the match on its head, scoring off a corner in the 16th minute. Over the next 75 minutes, the Raiders dominated en route to three unanswered goals, two off corners.
“I thought the commitment was good but the dead ball situations make you question yourself,” Daley said. “We made a few mistakes on some set piece situations and as a result we got burned.”
After four consecutive seasons of missing out on the NCAA Tournament, Daley knew what the loss meant to his seniors.
“It’s sad for the seniors and all credit to them because they’ve worked through so many ups and downs,” Daley said. “I’m so happy and proud to have coached them.”
But while the loss may be a crushing end for Stevens and his classmates, they have elevated the program to a new level of success that was not fathomable this time last year.
“They’ve put their imprint on this program going forward,” Daley said. “And hopefully they’ve set the standard … It’s uncharted territory and when you have a youthful group with four freshman, one sophomore, five juniors, one senior playing, the emotions are magnified.”
The future of Michigan soccer sits on this youth. While the Wolverines’ only senior starter was a colossal figure in its defense, Hallahan and freshman striker Mohammed Zakyi rank first and second, respectively, in both goals and assists on the team. A junior core of Francis Atuahene, Robbie Mertz, Ivo Cerda and Marcello Borges, meanwhile, will provide leadership for the younger stars.
“This experience will give us a taste,” Daley said. “Maybe we let the emotions get the best of us this time but hopefully if we get the chance again … hopefully we can continue to move forward.”
Coming into the season, the program had two goals: to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and to compete for a Big Ten title. Those boxes have been checked. But now, Daley has his sights set higher.
“If this is the standard, competing for the Big Ten regular season title, being in the NCAA Tournament, now it’s going to be unfinished business,” Daley said. “We’ve been there but now it’s not enough just to get there.”