The Wolverines have had their eyes on the prize from the start of the season.
“We had a picture of an empty trophy case in our locker room for two years,” fifth-year goalkeeper Hillary Beall said. “That’s motivated us the whole year to fill that trophy case.”
The second-seeded, Big Ten Champion Wolverines came into the weekend with an opportunity to host two challenging opponents and advance to the NCAA quarterfinals in their quest to fill that empty space.
As that trophy comes closer, each and every round gains more importance, more pressure. And in the last two rounds, Michigan’s resilient and gritty defense has guided them through.
On Friday, it dominated Wake Forest for a 2-0 win. Sunday, the Wolverines built on their confidence, notching another shutout in a 3-0 win against the third-seeded Tennessee.
“There’s a quote that says ‘defense wins championships’ and to be a team that is working to compete at the highest level you gotta be good defensively” Michigan coach Jen Klein said. “Have we weathered a few storms? Absolutely, but that happens in elite games, and you gotta be able to go with the swings in the momentum.”
The Wolverines’ defensive performance was typified by strong individual moments. Against the Demon Deacons, Michigan cleared a corner kick off of the goal line. Against the Volunteers, Michigan was forced to defend a creative offense, most notably forcing midfielder Skyler Anderson into a diving challenge, blocking a shot that looked destined for a wide-open net behind Beall.
Michigan faced 16 corners in addition to several dangerous free kicks throughout their games, and repelled each of them, relentlessly tracking down loose balls.
“You’re willing to do whatever it takes to be resilient in our box,” Klein said. “Their commitment to that, you talk about those as being championship moments, and giving everything that you have to keep the ball out of the back of the net, and they’re definitely doing that.”
After a regular season in which the Wolverines kept eight clean sheets in 20 games, their defense has come into its own in the postseason. Michigan has kept four consecutive opponents off the scoreboard, three in the NCAA Tournament and then the Big Ten Championship game, and refused to allow anything against their challenging opponents this weekend. Beall notched eight saves on the weekend, and Michigan’s back four denied Wake Forest a shot within the box for nearly an hour.
“It’s definitely not easy getting clean sheets — I think that kinda just shows what our defensive state is as a team,” junior defender Jayde Riviere said. “If we keep playing the way that we’re playing, there’s nobody in the country that can beat us.”
As the Wolverines continue deeper into the postseason, they will do so with the belief that they can stop any team in the nation, a confident attitude that will be seriously tested on Friday against free-scoring ACC Champions Florida State.
Michigan has opened the tournament with fire on defense, and will need to rely on it this weekend as the Wolverines seek a first College Cup appearance and a chance to fill their trophy cabinet.