Nearly nine months after a penalty shot grazed off the post to end the Michigan women’s soccer season, they are set to retake the field as the Wolverines embark on a new season.

Memories of the 2-2, 5-4 penalty kick loss against Illinois State will be long in the rear view when Michigan takes the field for its exhibition opener against West Virginia at U-M Stadium Monday. 

And it will have to — this team is too talented to linger in the “what ifs” of 2016.

Spearheaded by a star-studded group of upperclassmen and supplanted by a solid crop of young talent, this team brims with the potential to exceed last year’s first round NCAA tournament exit — the first such appearance for the team since 2013. 

Michigan returns three of its top four offensive producers from a season ago, only losing forward Nicky Waldeck to graduation. Goalkeeper Sarah Jackson — who won Big Ten defensive player of the week twice last season — is also set to return between the posts for her senior campaign. Jackson posted six shutouts last season and finished fourth in the Big Ten in saves.

Jackson and senior forward Ani Sarkisian will be two of the presumed leaders. In addition to being the focal point of the Michigan attack, Sarkisian has already received the nod as a team captain for the second consecutive season. Losing Waldeck, the team’s leading goal scorer a year ago, will place much of the goal-scoring onus on Sarkisian, who scored six goals last season and was named to the second team all-Big Ten in her own right.

But Sarkisian won’t be short on help up top. Lost to a knee injury for all of 2016, redshirt junior forward Taylor Timko makes her triumphant return, and will likely assume a starting role. The Rochester Hills native netted seven goals and started 18 games two years ago as a sophomore. 

There were positives to be taken away from last season’s heartbreaking NCAA tournament loss. At the top of that list? The emergence of centerback Jada Dayne. Dayne showed a flare for the dramatic when she netted a second-half equalizer in the tournament game, and displayed an ability as a dominant centerback at times last season. Dayne started all 19 games last season as a freshman for the Wolverines and will undoubtedly be counted upon to anchor a backline that lacks experience. 

But what it lacks in experience it makes up for in talent. Alongside Dayne, the team expects to get redshirt sophomore Sura Yekka back, after the Canadian international spent the 2016 season preparing for the U-20 World Cup for her country. Yekka played in all 21 games in her first season with the program two seasons ago and was named to the all-Big Ten freshman team.

Senior defender Alyssa Dillon — a team captain — will likely compete for a starting spot despite playing in just 17 games in her three seasons with the program. Dillon did, however, see an uptick in her playing time last season, playing in 10 games as a substitute.

But the engine of this team — as it was a year ago — will run through the midfield. A year after leading the team in points with 24, junior Reilly Martin returns as one of the premier players in the conference. Her 10 assists last season were good for a tie atop the Big Ten. Combined with junior Abby Kastroll, the two make up one of the most talented midfield tandems in the country, sure to give the Big Ten defenses fits. Given their pace and creativity, both Martin and Kastroll figure to be potential first team all-Big Ten players in 2017. Meanwhile, incoming freshman midfielder Alia Martin has a chance to make an impact from day one. Martin is ranked No. 36 overall in the 2017 recruiting class by Top Drawer Soccer.

In total, the team welcomes 11 freshmen as it replenishes the roster after losing seven seniors to graduation a year ago.

If Michigan coach Greg Ryan is able to find a stable backline to complement the plethora of attacking options, this figures to be the most talented Wolverines team in several years. They head into 2017 unquestionably as one of favorites in a competitive Big Ten.

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