In early September, the Michigan and Bowling Green women’s soccer teams faced off at the U-M Soccer Stadium. Fittingly for one of the season’s early games, the halftime entertainment was entitled Pups on the Pitch.

Last Friday, the two teams met again at the same place. No puppies were present an accurate representation of the maturity that the Wolverines and Falcons accumulated between then and now. 

The early-season mistakes made by two teams about to catch fire through regular-season and conference tournaments disappeared. Ball and player movement from both sides was more purposeful and more problematic for the opposing defense. Set pieces, performed in a premeditated fashion, created more substantial opportunities on goal.

But when the clock hit zero, the result replicated the September outcome. With a 2-1 victory, No. 19 Michigan (16-5-1 overall, 8-2-1 Big Ten) advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, eliminating Bowling Green (14-6-3, 10-1-0).

The Falcons made it clear from the onset that they wouldn’t let the Wolverines play bully ball again Michigan’s 16-0 shot advantage in the last contest took away all chances of Bowling Green ever climbing onto the scoreboard. On Friday, 61 percent of possession by both teams was at midfield compared to just 51.5 percent in the last contest, while the Wolverines’ possession in its final third fell from just over a third to just over a quarter. These statistics bear witness to Bowling Green’s improved ability to neutralize Michigan’s possessions before they became dangerous.

On the offensive end, the Falcons also demonstrated increased potency. Michigan coach Jennifer Klein acknowledged their ability to foil the her teams plans to push the ball and players forward in possession.

“We wanted to lock them into their half and be a bit more aggressive in our press,” Klein said. “… (In) the first half, their movement and interchange caused us a little bit of problems.”

That scheme nearly found paydirt for Michigan in the fourth minute. Junior defender Alia Martin received a penalty kick opportunity, but grounded it wide of the left woodwork. Following the miss, Bowling Green recorded a combination of six shots, corner kicks and offsides calls, signaling its intent and ability to create higher up the field. 

In the 35th minute, the Falcons capitalized on this aggressiveness. With numbers in their final third, Mackenzie Reuber’s facility, including a touch off the chest, gave her the control needed to slot the ball into the net’s corner, just out of junior goalkeeper Hillary Beall’s reach. 

“They like to make games exciting and difficult,” Klein said. “They’ve done it all season, so nothing has changed.”

Bowling Green closed out the first half and opened the second with increased offensive confidence which stemmed from its draw of first blood. While the ball was concentrated around midfield, any possession that threatened in front of goal belonged to the Falcons. The frustration of the Wolverines’ inability to create and extend possessions that posed a serious threat was plastered on the face of junior midfielder Nikki Hernandez, who was trying to play a role in every third of the field. 

“As a forward I know I can’t get caught up just in my attacking role,” Hernandez said. “The team can’t all be an attacking team.”

But just as Bowling Green only needed one goal to make Michigan and its fans come to the sober realization that this game could be the last, the Wolverines only needed one to renew daydreams of a second round.

With just under an hour to go, freshman forward Danielle Wolfe slid into the penalty box to poke a ball played in by junior Big Ten Midfielder of the Year Sarah Stratigakis and then Hernandez into the goal. When asked about her contribution, Wolfe, who saw limited minutes in relief, was quick to defer the results to her teammates.

“I just work my hardest for the girls who worked the whole 90 minutes,” Wolfe said. “ Those 30 minutes are the best 30 minutes that I can play.”

The game-tying goal provided new life for the Wolverines and their faithful. The former notched a trio of shots and a quartet of corner kicks in the following 12 minutes; the latter used their feet to pound out an emphatic Let’s Go Blue on the bleachers. This momentum made another Michigan goal seem inevitable. 

That’s why it came as little surprise when Hernandez took advantage of Falcon goalkeeper Kathleen Duwve’s abnormally high position in the 18-yard box, chipping in a goal from 26 yards that fluttered over Duwve’s fingers. The 2-1 lead in the 79th minute would prove to be insurmountable. When asked about the crucial tiebreaking goal, Hernandez’s response was simple.

“I didn’t think it was going in at first,” Hernandez said. “I was just really lucky that I got that goal.”

After weathering the Falcons’ continued press until all 90 minutes had expired, the Wolverines began to look forward to next week’s second round game against No. 15 Texas Tech.

Wolfe put the night in perspective.

“Nothing better than being under the lights, at home, with your crowd, and your whole team here,” Wolfe said, “and it’s the best feeling to be repping Michigan at home.”

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