Just after they were honored for Senior Night on Saturday, seven Wolverine seniors took the field knowing it could be the last home game of their collegiate careers.
Coming off a three-game losing streak, the Michigan women’s soccer team knew one loss would eliminate it from a Big Ten Tournament spot.
The game got off to an inconspicuous start for both teams. Both teams had scoring chances, but neither managed to find the back of the net.
And with eight minutes to go in the first half, frustrations boiled over, as fifth-year senior midfielder Ani Sarkisian got into a fight with an Illinois player.
The incident didn’t seem to have a tangible effect at first. Both players were issued yellow cards and play resumed. But it seemed to give Michigan a spark, as soon afterward, it caught fire. While the two teams were tied at halftime in shots and fouls, in the second half, the Wolverines (2-4-3 Big Ten, 5-5-6 overall) looked dominant, holding Illinois (2-7-0, 5-12-0) to just three shots the rest of the game en route to a 3-0 victory.
“We regrouped in the locker room and realized … if we wanted to win this game we had to give 100 percent,” Sarkisian said. “We went out there and got the job done.”
Michigan’s aggressiveness in the second half paid off. In the game’s 69th minute, junior midfielder Abby Kastroll took the ball downfield into the penalty area on a breakaway. Junior forward Reilly Martin did the rest, knocking one past the Illinois goalkeeper from 12 yards out.
In that moment, senior goalkeeper Sarah Jackson put her hands up in celebration from the other end of the field as the ball sailed into the opposing net.
Jackson’s gesture was both a celebration and a signal to her team to not let up.
“Next five minutes, don’t let down. If you let down, you give the other team a chance to get right back in,” Jackson said. “We’ve been waiting for that breakthrough.”
“Our main goal was to try and attack as much as we could,” said Michigan coach Greg Ryan. “We knew a tie wouldn’t do us any good, so our focus was just to go after them. As the game went along, we really caught our stride. Tonight was the first night where I thought … there was just a consistent level of understanding connection and attacking.”
Not long after, Michigan was awarded a penalty kick after an Illinois handball infraction. Sarkisian took the kick — and promptly scored to give her team crucial breathing room with a two-goal lead.
And with just 30 seconds remaining in the game, Kastroll again snuck through on a breakaway with no defenders in sight and scored another goal, putting the finishing touches on an incredibly important win for the Wolverines.
The Fighting Illini countered with an opportunity of their own, but Jackson fell on it just as time expired, securing the shutout for her team. One would have to go back to September to find the last time the Wolverines got a shutout, in a 0-0 draw with Wake Forest.
“Getting (the shutout),” Jackson said, “was really special.”
For Jackson and fellow senior goalkeeper Megan Hinz, combining for the shutout on Senior Night made the night feel even more special.
“Sarah and I have been training together for four years and you couldn’t ask for a better … teammate,” Hinz said. “To be able to share this with her is just unreal.”
With a win against Rutgers next week needed for the chance at a spot in the Big Ten Tournament, Hinz feels the team is finally clicking at the right time.
“We’re meshing really well,” she said. “We’re having fun but working so hard, and I think we’re in a good place to give it our all.”