It all ended so abruptly.
With the Michigan women’s soccer team in need of a penalty kick score to keep the game alive, sophomore midfielder Abby Kastroll’s shot glanced off the outside of the right post, ending the Wolverines’ season.
As Illinois State rushed the field, jubilantly celebrating a 2-2, 5-4 penalty kick victory, tears streamed down the faces of a dejected Wolverine team. There would be no second-round matchup with Duke, no NCAA tournament quarterfinal run, a la 2013. Only tears.
But after the game, as his team lamented the loss and the heartbreaking way in which the season ended, Michigan head coach Greg Ryan was all smiles. For him, the suddenness of this result didn’t mar the overwhelmingly successful season the Wolverines (6-3-2 Big Ten, 10-5-5 overall) had.
“(The season) was a huge success,” Ryan said. “And a lot of fun.”
And considering the talent lost on the team before the season even began, he’s probably right.
The Wolverines lost freshman midfielder Kelly Sweeney and junior forward Taylor Timko to knee injuries suffered in the spring season, and also were without sophomore defender Sura Yekka this season, who was training with the Canadian U-20 Women’s National Team. All were projected starters before the season.
Timko finished tied for the team lead in points last season (17) and figured to be an integral part of Michigan’s attack before her injury. Sweeney was looking to rebound from her season-ending injury two years ago, but she re-injured the same knee. Yekka, who played in all 21 games her freshman year, was a mainstay on the backline for the Wolverines.
“This is a team where, if you’re looking at it on paper, you’re saying, ‘Where are we going to get the goals?’ How are we gonna make this work?’”
But the losses opened up opprtunities for players who proved ready to pick up the slack, and they made it work. Sophomore forward Reilly Martin and senior forward Nicky Waldeck both increased their point totals significantly from a season ago — nine to 24 for Martin and eight to 21 for Waldeck.
Players like freshman defender Jada Dayne — who scored her first career goal as a second half equalizer against Illinois State and was reliable for the Wolverines’ defense all season — and senior midfielder Jessica Heifitz, who Ryan said ”never got a break,” flourished in significant roles.
Ryan also credited a uniquely strong group of seniors for fostering a strong atmosphere in training and on the pitch.
“It was a fantastic group of people and leaders, and they really set the tone for the whole year in terms of being positive, being supportive, having fun,” Ryan said. “We’re going to miss this group of kids.”
But the smile remained for a coach who led his team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. The early exit might have been abrupt for his players, but not for Ryan, who has been coaching for over 30 years. At this moment, he had the luxury of perspective.
“I’m so happy it was this team that got to the NCAA Tournament,” he said.