With its eyes set on winning the Big Ten Tournament and earning its first bid to the NCAA Tournament in three years, the Michigan women’s soccer team needs all the talent it can get.
Luckily for the Wolverines, they welcome a versatile freshman class that could make huge strides on a 29-player roster — one that’s almost split evenly between upperclassmen and lowerclassmen.
Of course, the incoming class still has a ways to go in transitioning from the speed of high school play to high-intensity level of collegiate soccer.
“I can definitely tell they’re not used to the college game, but every session they’re getting so much better and getting so much more acclimated to this. It’s definitely a big change,” said redshirt junior midfielder Ani Sarkisian during the team’s media day on Aug. 6, just nine practice sessions into the season. “Everyone goes through it, but they’re doing a great job with it.”
But Sarkisian, one of three captains alongside senior midfielders Madisson Lewis and Jessica Heifetz, continue to do all they can in making that transition as easy as possible — especially in regards to balancing soccer with academics. With practice beginning Aug. 3, the freshman class began arriving on campus at the end of July and also stayed at the senior class’s house.
Together, the team played board games, played pickup games and went to the movies, creating chemistry early on ahead of the team’s season opener against Pittsburgh on Friday at U-M Soccer Stadium.
“They’ve really reached out to us and have been there for support in anything,” said freshman defender Jada Dayne. “They’ve really put themselves in that position where we feel comfortable approaching them or vice versa. It’s a cool environment.”
Added Sarkisian: “They all have great personalities — very different, but really great personalities as a whole class. I really feel no barrier between them and the rest of the team since they did just come in.”
Dayne is one of seven freshman to join Michigan this season alongside forwards Brooke DeSantis and Grace Salvino, defender Julia McGivern, goalkeeper Sean Sinko and midfielders Brooke Cilley and Jessica Schafer.
Redshirt freshman midfielder Katie Foug and redshirt junior Alyssa Herwatt have also been with the team since the spring season, with Foug moving up from the club team and Herwatt transferring from Colorado, where she played for two seasons.
Several newcomers have already made their mark during the team’s two preseason exhibitions against No. 6 West Virginia and No. 4 Virginia. Foug scored a game-tying goal against the Mountaineers with 27 seconds left in the game.
Three days later against the Cavaliers, DeSantis made several good runs behind Virginia’s backline and nearly notched a goal. Back in February, head coach Greg Ryan said DeSantis is “strong, fast and as aggressive a player” as he has seen since Meghan Toohey, who captained the 2013 squad that made the Elite Eight.
Though the freshman got to campus a few weeks ago, their preparation for the upcoming 2016-17 season began long ago at the beginning of the summer. Since then, they’ve had to complete a fitness packet, compete in summer leagues and undergo plenty of personal training.
“We definitely bonded over the struggle of completing the packets and all the little tests and stuff,” Dayne said. “It’s really cool seeing how people got here and their experiences with getting recruited, their experiences with soccer in general. We’ve had some random bonding moments where someone would say something and we’d just kinda turn like, ‘No way, we went through that too!’
“We had really cool moments where we’d laugh about things that we struggled through or some moments where we actually had some deep conversations about some crazy things. It’s been a great experience.”
For Dayne, who will help anchor the Wolverines’ backline this season, it was the academic challenge and the athletic program’s emphasis on the team that drew her to Michigan. Three days after practice began, Dayne expressed how she couldn’t wrap her head around how quickly everything was progressing.
Weeks later, the Wolverines are beginning their regular season, and Dayne and her teammates eagerly await the competition ahead.
“I’m really excited to play here, but really nervous at the same time,” Dayne said. “There’s such a history that’s tied with playing with this team and coming to this school in general that it’s just really intense. Once you start thinking about it, you’re not just playing for yourself anymore, you’re playing for your team, playing for past teams, playing for the school itself.”