Hillary Beall says before every contest she can tell which way the game is going to go based on the feeling the team gives her.
The feeling the senior goalkeeper had before the Big Ten Championship against No. 1 seed Rutgers was a good one. The No. 3 seed Michigan women’s soccer team (15-3-3 overall, 6-2-2 Big Ten) refused to go home empty handed, winning 1-0.
That feeling turned out to be very telling. The Wolverines controlled the game from start to finish and wouldn’t let No. 4 Rutgers (17-4, 10-1) get anything by them en route to their first Big Ten Tournament title since 1999.
“It’s an unbelievable huge accomplishment,” Michigan coach Jennifer Klein said. “For me, coming to Michigan wanting to do things and win championships. To get there and do it is definitely something that I’m proud of.
“This team has had a goal of winning the Big Ten Title. To accomplish a set of goals just shows their hard work, their dedication and their focus. We want to be a program that is competing for championships. It’s a big, big milestone for us and, hopefully, it’s something we can build on.”
Although they were facing the top-seeded team on its home field in front of a record crowd, Michigan didn’t let it get to its heads. It dictated the game from the start. Senior midfielders Meredith Haakenson and Sarah Stratigakis got off to hot starts, each producing shots and controlling the ball in the offensive third. The Wolverines had many early opportunities, each just missing. They were clearly knocking at the door. Midway through the first half, Michigan led 5-0 in shots with the Scarlet Knights producing no real offensive possessions.
In the 26th minute, senior midfielder Raleigh Loughman finally took advantage of Michigan’s possessions and strong offensive play. Loughman dribbled the ball to the left side of the net and slid it past the goalkeeper, who didn’t seem to anticipate the shot, into the bottom right corner of the net. Loughman’s impact across the field is undeniable. She’s notched four goals in the last five games.
“It’s a hell of a performance for her,” Beall said. “She’s a captain and a leader. Just having someone like that on the field that’s able to be composed and finish a goal like that in a big game. It means a lot to our team. Our offense has been phenomenal the past few games.”
It was early in the game, but even for Beall, alone on the other side of the field, the goal was a little taste of victory. Michigan almost got a taste of victory two years ago, when the team lost in double overtime in the Big Ten Championship game. It wasn’t going to let that happen again.
This year, with more depth and veteran leadership, Michigan’s offense remained in attack mode while its defense and goalkeeper didn’t let up.
In the second half, Michigan felt some of the momentum shift to Rutgers as the Scarlet Knights came out strong and controlled the ball. But it was the Wolverines’ ball control and poise on both ends that kept the game in check.
“It was just really about us valuign balls and making sure that we take care of it,” Klein said. “I also think a lot of it also had to do with our defensive organization and our pressure. That’s a very, very good team. They don’t give up a lot of goals, and we knew if we were able to get one it would definitely give us momentum.”
Leading the defensive effort was junior defender Jayde Riviere. She was placed on Big Ten Freshman of the Year forward Riley Tiernan for most of the game. Tiernan was largely a non-factor and this limited Rutgers’s offense. Averaging nearly 20 shots a game coming into this contest, the Scarlet Knights mustered just nine shots and three on goal, most of these coming in the final minutes of the game.
But Riviere left halfway through the second half with an apparent injury. She walked off on her own, but her health will be important going forward.
“She’s an unbelievable player,” Klein said. “She has a lot of experience in big-time games and dealing with elite players. We knew how good Tiernan was and really thought it would be a great matchup for us. I thought Jayde did a great job.”
Rutgers made a few desperation chances towards the end of the second half, each time met with Michigan’s defense and Beall’s saves. With six minutes remaining, the Scarlet Knights had a golden opportunity with a free kick from just outside the box. They missed it wide right and were never granted another chance.
With one minute remaining, Beall made a final save, her face showing excitement and relief.
“They were coming down our throats,” Beall said. “Just to be able to get that ball … it was great. I was excited. Just kind of felt like we were going to win that game right then.”
After one final foul with 38 seconds left, Michigan rushed onto the field as the final whistle blew, hoisting a Big Ten Championship trophy for the first time this century.
“We went in there and gave everything we had,” Beall said. “Didn’t just hope for it but really went after it and went for it this year.”
Each year, the Wolverines have been inching closer and closer to their goal of a Big Ten Championship. Now, they get to taste victory.
“It was something, just the cherry on top for the season,” Beall said.