Michigan women’s soccer coach Jennifer Klein found herself in a pickle in the Wolverines’ final game of the spring. Thanks to a number of absences, the first-year coach was missing all of her top-choice striker options.
She analyzed her options, and with no better alternative, settled on using then-freshman midfielder Nicki Hernandez as her striker. Hernandez put up a strong performance, convincing Klein she had stumbled upon a new winning formula.
Seven games into 2018, the move looks like a stroke of genius, as Hernandez has six goals and four assists, leading the team in both categories.
“I think because we’re getting her higher and into the goal zone in and around the net, she’s able to able to put the ball in the net,” Klein said. “She has good skill and she’s not scared to shoot.”
She started 12 games last year but managed just a goal and an assist as sophomore midfielder Sarah Stratigakis and senior forward Reilly Martin made headlines for Michigan. Now, Hernandez has elevated herself to their level as the team’s most important player in non-conference play.
But while Hernandez has been the best player, Stratigakis and Martin have been critical to her success. The trio notched both the goal and assist on five of the Wolverines’ six goals in their 6-1 win over Central Michigan on Friday night and regularly practice in tandem to build chemistry for game days.
Off the field, Hernandez and Stratigakis are best friends, helping to fortify their mutual understanding.
“Having a close relationship off the field really helps on the field,” said Hernandez. “It’s really important for us to know each other. We always look for each other and it’s good for us to connect with each other, especially in these upcoming games because that’s how we’re going to succeed.”
Coming off a three-game losing streak — in which Hernandez and Stratigakis scored Michigan’s only two offensive goals — Klein knew she could trust her offensive stars to right the ship against Central Michigan.
That safety net is what gives Klein and the team confidence heading into Big Ten play.
“Coming in with our new staff,” Klein said, “we wanted to establish an attacking identity and really try to make sure we have options in numbers going forward.
“They’re really thriving in this system of play. I know Strat and Reilly both have been really impactful with their years before and I think we found a good spot for Nicki and we’ve freed her up and she’s been able to be creative and impactful.”
But while the locker room remained upbeat through the Wolverines’ losing streak, the team needed a strong performance Friday to regain its confidence. Thanks to Hernandez, Martin, and Stratigakis, that’s what it got.
“It totally (impacts our confidence) and that’s what we were looking for coming in,” said Klein.
That confidence is more than coach speak. It’s obvious in the way the team plays, pressuring opponents at every turn and always looking to get forward, in contrast to a defensive mindset preached under coach Greg Ryan last season.
But more than that, it’s obvious in the players.
“In the Big Ten, if we go down,” Hernandez says, before pausing and cracking a laugh, “which we won’t.”
In her current form, that prediction might not be too far off.