The No. 19 Michigan men’s soccer team appeared to be crawling toward a goalless draw against Detroit Mercy. But when junior forward Francis Atuahene emerged from a mass of bodies to arrive first to a saved shot, he pounced on his chance to slot the game-winning goal past Titans’ goalkeeper Josh Flamme.
Four minutes later, freshman midfielder Umar Farouk Osman sliced through the defense before cutting back to striker Mohammed Zakyi, who would have doubled the Wolverines’ advantage if not for a last-ditch tackle to block his shot.
In the midst of an uninspired performance for what primarily served as a tune-up before Sunday’s Big Ten title decider against Maryland, this four-minute stretch exhibited the blend of experience and youth that has propelled Michigan to its most successful season of the Chaka Daley era.
The experience that led to the first goal has been on display throughout the season, and Wednesday night was no different. Two minutes into the second half, Detroit Mercy seemed poised to go up 1-0 before senior captain Billy Stevens appeared seemingly out of nowhere to make a goal-saving challenge.
After the match, Stevens’ teammates grabbed the defender — who has started every match of his 68-match career in Ann Arbor — and celebrated their victory.
“The guys tossed me up in the air,” Stevens said. “It’s a feeling that hits you so hard in the heart that you know everyone’s fighting for you.”
Added Daley: “Billy Stevens, Tristan Jacob, Ali Jawad, Grant Mattia as a fifth-year have all been monumental. Men of distinction who have been humble, hard-working, none of them have looked for plaudits going forward, they’ve been great Michigan men.”
Atuahene discussed how the group inspired him in his first two years in Ann Arbor.
“(The seniors) have been role models for me,” Atuahene said. “Freshman year I was looking up to (them), especially Billy Stevens, who was always looking out for me. They set the bar high for us young guys and put the program in the position where it is now.”
The Wolverines’ upperclassmen, though, have only been half of the equation in Michigan’s renaissance season. Until Atuahene’s winner against Detroit, the team’s younger players — led by the team’s leading scorer, Zakyi, and leading passer, sophomore midfielder Jack Hallahan — had either scored or assisted their last 16 goals, dating back to a Sept. 8 win over Wisconsin.
“(The freshmen) are great in the locker room and also on the training field, they’re coming in every day 100 percent,” Stevens said. “Strong tackles, sharp passing, it’s incredible. We have a true number six, a true number nine, and (both our wingers), these guys coming in just playing phenomenal.”
It is not just coach-speak, either. As Stevens stood on the field postgame, an attendant cracked the door to the locker room open behind him. In the split second it was open, the sound of celebratory cheers and music spilled from the jubilant locker room onto the field.
Michigan’s rejuvenating journey does not seem to be ending anytime soon. Sunday, the Wolverines will play for their first-ever conference title in College Park, home of one of the sport’s traditional powerhouses in No. 12 Maryland. While this may come as a surprise to most who followed Michigan’s eighth-place conference finish last season, it hasn’t to Daley.
“In our first meeting of the year on August 8, we talked to the guys and we asked them ‘Where do you want to be?’,” Daley said. “And they wanted to be in the NCAA tournament and to compete for a Big Ten championship. (It) made life very easy for me to have a motivated group and a united group, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”
This unity ultimately comes back to Stevens and the rest of the senior class, who have taken their experience of three losing seasons to ensure that their talented freshman classmates would not endure the same struggle.
“The biggest thing the seniors have done for the freshman class,” Daley said, “is helping them understand that it’s hard to win college soccer games.”