2013 was a very different time. Barack Obama had just entered his second term, Avicii was at the top of the charts and the Michigan women’s soccer team was in the Sweet Sixteen.
The players on this year’s team were just entering their preteen phase then, and Michigan coach Jennifer Klein was coaching in Washington.
Fast forward six years and the Wolverines found themselves in the same spot as that 2013 squad. In one of the team’s most prolific campaigns in recent history, No. 19 Michigan (17-6-1 overall, 8-2-1 Big Ten) made its deepest run into the NCAA Tournament since 2013 before falling to No. 2 North Carolina (22-1-1, 9-0-1 ACC) in the Sweet Sixteen, 4-0, on Sunday.
Prior to the loss, the Wolverines relied on their improved goal-scoring ability, balanced offensive attack and depth in their 3-2 victory over Texas Tech on Friday in the second round of the tournament.
Against the Red Raiders, Michigan dominated from the opening whistle. In the fifth minute, Big Ten Midfielder of the Year, junior Sarah Stratigakis, was given a penalty kick and got the goalkeeper out of place, only for the ball to hit the post. But, just three minutes later, she had the opportunity to atone for her miss. She took the ball down the field by herself and blasted a left-footed shot to the upper right corner of the goal.
She gave two thumbs up after the goal and kept moving forward.
“I think it speaks to her strength and determination not to allow for something like that to get her down,” Klein said on Friday. “Stratigakis is a player that has the ability to bring pressure on the goal and create opportunities not only for herself but for her teammates.”
Stratigakis’ goal was a confidence builder and provided the Wolverines with a sense of relief. Coming into Friday’s game, Michigan was 13-0 when Stratigakis had at least one point in a game.
Texas Tech then equalized the game in the 22nd minute, killing Michigan’s momentum. The score carried into halftime.
After playing an action-filled first half, the Wolverines had depth to their advantage. They were able to give their starters time to breath and the ability to have a fresh set of legs.
“We really feel the deeper the bench is the more opportunities the team gets,” Klein said. “We knew it was going to be a physical battle and required a lot of players to run. We wanted to make sure we were rotating them to keep them fresher longer.”
Freshman forward Danielle Wolfe came off the bench and proved to be exactly what was needed to break the tie.
Less than two minutes after entering the game, Wolfe headed in a perfectly placed pass from senior midfielder Brooke Cilley into the goal. This broke the tie, putting the Wolverines ahead, 2-1.
“I think she values the minutes that she is given,” Klein said. “She knows she has the opportunity to be impactful with what she is given and takes advantage of it. She is a team-first mentality kid.”
The freshman’s impact wasn’t over. She added another goal in the 83rd minute, heading it in off a pass from sophomore midfielder Skylar Anderson. Her second goal of the day proved to be the game-winner, putting the Wolverines ahead 3-1.
The Red Raiders were able to notch another goal in the 88th minute, but it was too little too late.
No one on this roster had ever played in a game of this magnitude before, but to Wolfe, as a freshman, playing in the Sweet Sixteen had an added significance.
“Its nothing like I have played in before,” Wolfe said. “Definitely an experience and a moment that was super surreal. I never thought I would get here and definitely took it all in.”
After the game, Klein and her team relished in their victory but remained focus on the task at hand — beat No. 2 overall seed, North Carolina.
“Our job is not done yet. We are going to shock the world,” Klein said after the win over Texas Tech.
It didn’t happen.
The Tar Heels presented a level of competition that proved insurmountable. North Carolina posted an NCAA-high 18 shutouts and outscored opponents, 60-8, coming into the game.
With only one loss on the year, the Tar Heels came as advertised. Six minutes in, they notched their first goal. Michigan managed to keep up with North Carolina’s offensive pressure and fast pace of play for the first 20 minutes, as the two teams had equal shot totals.
However, the Tar Heel’s bench proved to be better than that of the Wolverines. North Carolina was subbed in six different players at a time. They were able to play 21 players to Michigan’s 17.
The Tar Heel went on to win, 4-0, in pursuit of their 23rd national title.
The Wolverines were outshot 19-7. Junior goalkeeper Hillary Beal tallied eight saves in the effort. Her strong play was unable to overcome the opposing offensive onslaught.
The team knows there was a silver lining to this loss and the season as a whole. In only her second season as coach, Klein’s emphasis on offensive efficiency led the team to nearly double its goal total from a year before.
2013 and 2019 have come and gone for Michigan. But Klein has led her program in a direction that could make the Wolverines’ next Sweet Sixteen hiatus considerably shorter.