For the first time in 15 years, the Michigan women’s soccer team advanced to the Big Ten Championship game.
After an uneventful start to their semifinal matchup with Rutgers on Friday, the Wolverines went up 1-0 in the 70th minute when sophomore defender Sydney Shepherd netted her first career goal. In a physical game characteristic of conference play this season, one goal seemed like it would be enough for Michigan to secure the win.
But with less than two minutes left in regulation, the Scarlet Knights equalized the game after forward Tiernny Wiltshire scored off a cross. It was a shocking blow in a game that the Wolverines believed was wrapped up.
The theatrics weren’t over as Michigan freshman Jayde Riviere proved to be the hero that the team needed. Six minutes into sudden-death overtime, Riviere, isolated on the right side, sent a ball sailing over the outstretched reach of the Rutgers goalkeeper Meagan McClelland and into the net handing Michigan a 2-1 win.
Pure chaos ensued. One second Riviere was at the top of the world. The next, she was at the bottom of a dogpile of her ecstatic teammates.
Two years after going 6-6-6 and missing the Big Ten tournament, the Wolverines earned a trip to the Big Ten Championship game.
Both of Michigan’s goals came as the first career goals for two young players.
“You’re just really happy, especially (for) two defenders and them getting an opportunity,” said Michigan coach Jennifer Klein. “Sydney Shepard has been really close on set pieces throughout the season, so I’m really happy that she was finally able to get one.
“Jayde has been a player that has come along throughout the season and has been more of an attacking presence for us and I think she did a great job was aggressive and I’m just really happy for them.”
The match was a hard-fought, physical battle throughout. Sophomore midfielder Meredith Haakenson and Wiltshire were in a tense matchup all game. Haakenson was given a yellow card in the 15th minute of the first half, but did not let up on her strong play. The team kept its composure and was not given another card. In a tense win-or-go home playoff environment, the Wolverines focused on keeping the ball moving and putting pressure on the Scarlet Knight defense in the final third.
Michigan went into halftime with confidence, as they outshot Rutgers, 9-5, in the first half. Coming out of halftime with both teams still scoreless, the emphasis was on starting the second half unlike they had in previous games.
“The last couple of games I don’t think we have started the half with quite the right energy and intensity,” Klein said. “I really challenged them to do that. We made a few tactical adjustments just to deal with some of their midfield rotation.”
Rutgers’ lineup changed often as three of its starters were injured and never came off the bench. These changes did not rattle the Wolverines, as they adjusted appropriately each time.
“Any player that came in, we just communicated,” Klein said. “Especially the players in the back staying disciplined and organized. I think our girls did a good job.”
Going into the game Michigan, was undefeated in games when it scored first. In the 70th minute, Shepherd headed in the first goal of the game off an assist from sophomore midfielder Raleigh Loughman. Playing with the lead, however, did not change the Wolverine’s mentality.
“I think the big thing was to just keep doing what we are doing,” Klein said. “Continue to put them under pressure by moving the ball and being aggressive when we get on the attack.”
Michigan’s win set the team up for its first Big Ten Championship appearance since 2005, which they lost 2-1 to Penn State in overtime.
“The girls set the goal at the beginning of the season that they wanted to win a Big Ten Championship and get back to the NCAAs,” Klein said. “They’ve kept their focus with the goals that they set. They’ve done a great job of giving themselves a great opportunity to achieve those goals.”