Three minutes. That’s all it took for then-No. 10 Penn State to score three unanswered goals to end the Michigan women’s soccer team’s regular season last Wednesday night. With the 3-1 win, Penn State clinched the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, while sending Michigan tumbling down to fifth in the final conference standings.
That might’ve been the story a week ago, but plenty can change in seven days. Fast forward to Sunday afternoon, when the Wolverines took on No. 4 seed Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.
Going into Evanston for a winner-take-all showdown, Michigan needed a tremendous team effort to keep its season and its hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament alive. And the team delivered with a gritty performance ripe with heart and fire, walking away with a 1-0 victory off a goal by junior forward Nicky Waldeck. Coincidentally, the score line mimicked the Wolverines’ win over the then-22nd-ranked Wildcats at U-M Soccer Stadium a month prior.
A familiar foe now awaits in the conference tournament semifinals, where the Wolverines will face off against none other than the Nittany Lions. With a place in the Big Ten championship game on the line, Michigan is hoping for a completely different story this time around.
“I think Penn State got our worst performance, so we’re preparing to give them our best performance on Friday night,” said Michigan coach Greg Ryan. “I’m very confident we’re going to bounce back and play so much better. Playing them once already really helps us know exactly what we’re up against. We know what and how they will probably play. This time, we’re in a much better position to go out there and give ourselves a chance to move on in the Big Ten Tournament.”
In their fourth straight appearance at the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines now advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2012. Considering that they have not reached the championship match since the turn of the century, Friday night’s match against Penn State looms even larger. Fortunately for Michigan, it is well-equipped to take on the challenge.
This group of Wolverines is a loaded bunch. Senior captain and defender Christina Murillo is second in the Big Ten with seven assists, while redshirt sophomore forward Ani Sarkisian and sophomore forward Taylor Timko are tied for seventh in the conference with seven goals apiece. Over half of Michigan’s roster has contributed a point so far this season, while 11 Wolverines have netted at least one goal. Four players have double-digit points — Timko and Sarkisian are tied with 17, while freshman midfielder Abby Kastroll and senior forward Lulu Haidar are tied with 12.
That doesn’t even include the Wolverines’ defensive dominance. Michigan has shut out nine opponents this season, including three of its last four, and has conceded just 19 goals while allowing an average of just seven shots per game. Coupled with 36 goals scored to date, the Wolverines boast an impressive plus-17 scoring margin. But the defense failed to contain Penn State in its previous game and must play significantly better in order for Michigan to be victorious.
“We don’t really have to change what we do, we just have to execute better,” Ryan said. “We have to defend better as a back line. We gave away some pretty easy goals that would have been fairly easy for us to defend. Against a high-powered attacking team like Penn State, we have to be outstanding defensively. We have been very good this whole year in the back, so I’m very confident that we can be.”
Another phase that gave the Wolverines problems during the first meeting was possession. Usually accustomed to dictating the run of play, Michigan allowed Penn State too much time on the ball and too much space in the midfield, resulting in three goals for the Nittany Lions.
“We really have to turn it on in our ability to keep the ball,” Ryan said. “We are going to make some adjustments to get more players around the ball and more players a little higher up the park. After they scored the first goal, we stopped trying to keep the ball ourselves. Against Penn State, if you give them the ball back every time, you’re going to be defending all night, and eventually they’re going to beat you.”
The last game left a sour taste in the Wolverines’ mouths. Coming off a big-time performance against Northwestern, the Wolverines are determined to change the story this time around.
“That huge win basically came down to ‘How hard can we fight?’ ” said Michigan senior midfielder Corinne Harris. “We ended up proving that we’re not only talented, but we’re a really strong team that can play that hard and match that level.
“We’re trying to take that level of intensity into the Penn State game. We’re getting stronger in practice, and we’re ready for a rematch, because we weren’t happy with the way it went before.”
Ready to put the past behind them, the Wolverines now have the opportunity to write a new narrative.