While a flurry of physical contests and constant changes of possession, the midfield was the center of action in Thursday’s match between the Michigan women’s soccer team and No. 19 Rutgers. However, it was the play of two Wolverines at opposite ends of the pitch that proved to be the difference between a draw at home and a win over one of the Big Ten’s finest teams.
Often isolated up front as the Wolverine midfield struggled to establish a foothold, while Rutgers controlled the ebbs and flows of play, senior forward Nicky Waldeck proved that with a bit of luck and a knack for good positioning, opportunities for scoring would present themselves.
With Michigan down 2-1 in the 79th minute, freshman forward Brooke DeSantis, who was a constant attacking presence on the right wing in the second half, crossed in a ball that snuck under the leg of a Rutgers defender. It fell to Waldeck, who, despite an overall lack of chances in the second half, displayed a measurable sense of composure and slotted it in the bottom right corner of the goal.
“Sometimes you do not see the ball that much, but that is life as a forward,” Waldeck said. “The bounces fell right to my feet, so that was pretty fortunate.”
Fortuitous bounces and good positioning gave the Wolverines a chance to tie the game and take it to overtime. Under immense pressure, redshirt sophomore goalie Sarah Jackson’s performance required constant focus and communication with her defense.
Playing in a formation that allowed its creative midfielders ample amounts of space to make incisive passes, Rutgers found few problems going forward against the Wolverines. The failure of Michigan’s midfield to control the ball and buffer Rutgers’ attacks left the Wolverines’ defense exposed at numerous critical junctures in the second half and overtime, but Jackson proved to be the ultimate hindrance to Scarlet Knight success.
In overtime, with Michigan playing in a more defensive shape, clearly looking to capitalize on a counterattack, the Scarlet Knights found an opening at the top of the box, but Jackson pushed the shot away with a diving save that sent the match to a second overtime period.
“Those were not easy saves, but she makes them look easier than they are,” said Michigan coach Greg Ryan. “The ball is slippery, they were finding some space, but getting across (the net) … just kept us in it.”
With the dawn of the second overtime, the Wolverines began to take the game more to Rutgers, as their previous counterattacking style morphed into a more assertive and marauding flow of play. Four minutes in, DeSantis sprayed a ball across the pitch that found sophomore midfielder Abby Kastroll in stride, who after evading a defender, looped a cross into the box that found who else but Waldeck. Her header glided past Scarlet Knight defender Alana Jimenez and completed the Wolverines’ comeback.
Waldeck’s ability to find open space, even while having to struggle alone up front against Rutgers’ defense, proved to be a fitting complement to Jackson’s deftness in staking her claim as a force between the posts. Making their mark at opposite ends of the pitch with very different roles on the team, the play of Waldeck and Jackson proved to be the ultimate reason for the 3-2 Michigan win.