With Michigan’s rival just one hour away in East Lansing, the Wolverine fans were not alone in the stands at Thursday’s contest between Michigan (9-2-3 overall, 3-1-2 Big Ten) and Michigan State 9-1-3, 4-1-1). Spartan fans filled the visitors’ section, complete with students waving flags and cheering in the front rows. Their presence did not go unnoticed. Even before the match kicked off, Michigan State fans were chanting “Go green, Go white” for the entire stadium to hear.
The energized Spartan crowd, however, did not seem to shake the Wolverines’ starting 11, and in a hard-fought game, Michigan battled its rival to a 1-0 victory. In fact, Michigan tried a new approach to its starting formation, with three at the back and five midfielders including fifth year senior Nicki Hernandez on the left wing, completed by sophomore forward Sammi Woods and junior forward Dani Wolfe leading the team at the top of the field.
Hernandez, who usually finds herself in an attacking role, played a crucial part in the Wolverine’s defensive game in the first half, playing as a wing back.
“It’s different,” Hernandez said. “Obviously, playing forward, you do some defensive work, but as wing-back, I actually enjoyed it a lot. It’s hard to get back and forth because it’s tiring, but I enjoy it well and I think we did a really good job playing that formation.”
The Spartans made the majority of their plays up the right side of the field, forcing Hernandez to make numerous plays on the defensive end. She delivered with long runs up the left side, creating attacking chances and even taking a few shots of her own.
The goal of Michigan’s new formation was to create an attacking unit on the field, rather than having a couple attacking minded players at the top. This tactic seemed to work well for the Wolverines in the first half, as they outshot Michigan State, 14 -6.
At the start of the second half, the Spartans came out firing, putting the Michigan defense under more pressure than they saw in the first half of the game. Despite this, the Wolverines would be the first to score in Thursday’s matchup.Ten minutes into the second half, senior defender Sydney Shepherd found the ball at her feet. Beginning the play with a switch to the left side of the field, the ball made its way into the box to sophomore Sarah Bridenstine. Bridenstine passed off to fifth year senior midfielder Sarah Stratigakis, who deflected the ball to a lunging sophomore midfielder Kacey Lawrence, who put the ball in the back of the net for the Wolverines.
The Spartans did not back down. The Michigan State offense responded with back-to-back shots on goal. It was almost able to capitalize when its offensive pressure forced Michigan senior goalkeeper Hillary Beall to mishandle the ball in the box. The Spartans’ shot narrowly missed. This close chance was followed by a Michigan State free kick at the top of the box where midfielder Justina Gaynor whipped a ball past the left side of the Wolverine wall, only for Beall to redeem herself with an incredible diving save.
In the final five minutes of the game, the Wolverines did their best to slow the pace of play, maintain possession and use time to their advantage, but the Spartans would not allow it. Michigan State upped the offensive pressure even more, getting more shots off in a few minutes than it did in all of the first half. Unphased, a calm Michigan was able to see out the game and claim a 1-0 victory over the Spartans.
“It’s a game with a lot of emotion,” Michigan coach Jennifer Klein said. “You just gotta let the game play itself out a little bit, get your feet under you, see how the tempo is, how the energy is and then you know how you can start to proceed. But I was happy with the way that we were able to respond.”