Before the battle for the Big Bear Trophy kicked off, the Michigan men’s soccer team formed a guard of honor while taking to the pitch. Through it walked Michigan senior forwards Colin McAtee, William Mellors-Blair, James Murphy and TJ VanSlooten. They were accompanied by their families on Senior Night, and emotions were running high.
With the exception of VanSlooten, they took their positions as the Wolverines’ front three for Saturday’s matchup against Michigan State. Murphy, who had been out since Sept. 11, was making his first start back from injury.
“It really meant a lot,” Murphy said. “Having been out for a long time and playing in front of my family, there were some nerves. We don’t have many games left, so I tried to give it everything.”
His co-captain McAtee echoed the sentiment.
“It was an amazing feeling,” McAtee said. “I really can’t explain it. It was extremely special and very memorable, especially before such a big game.”
Despite the feelings running around, the importance of the fixture wasn’t lost to Michigan. With two games left in the Big Ten season, the magnitude of the game couldn’t be understated.
“It was a great experience (to walk up with my family),” Mellors-Blair said. “It wasn’t really an emotional feeling for me, it was more to fuel the fire to get ready to get pumped for the game.”
For Mellors-Blair and Murphy in particular, it was even more exciting. Both of them hail from England, and as such, their families don’t get to watch them play very often. It was the first time their parents had seen them play live in years.
“My mum hasn’t seen me play since 2012,” Mellors-Blair said. “It’s her first time in the U.S. Brilliant experience.”
Added Murphy: “Obviously they don’t get to see me very often, so them being here, there were a lot of emotions.”
The game finally kicked off, and the front three went about trying to find the back of the net. They were given the task of replacing Michigan freshman forward Francis Atuahene, who has scored 10 of the Wolverines’ 24 goals this season, but was out after receiving a red card in the previous game. McAtee ended up playing wide to make room for Murphy, who started at center-forward position, one that he hasn’t played very often while donning maize and blue.
“It was a little bit different,” Murphy said. “But I’ve played there a bit when I was little, and coming back after a long time, I was just trying to do my job.”
The forward line did exactly that, linking up well to score the only goal of the game.
Mellors-Blair intercepted a pass from Michigan State defender Zach Caroll before driving deep into the Spartans’ half. He then passed to McAtee, who cut into the middle before passing the ball out wide to Michigan junior defender Rylee Woods.
Woods then put a scintillating cross into the middle of the box, which Murphy did well to get to. He then sent a looping header over Michigan State goalkeeper Zach Bennett, who was helpless as the ball floated above his head and into the back of the net.
Murphy wheeled away in celebration. The forward sprinted to the stands to celebrate with his family.
“I blanked out, honestly,” Murphy said. “I just ran to my family, gave them a little wave. Best feeling ever.”
The goal clearly meant a lot to Murphy. It was his first goal back from injury, his first in front of his parents, possibly his last in Ann Arbor, and it won the game for the Wolverines. But it wasn’t just Murphy who knew just how special that header was.
“If anything,” McAtee said, “I wanted to see James score. It must’ve been amazing for him.”
Michigan coach Chaka Daley was full of praise for Murphy, too.
“I have high expectations of James Murphy,” Daley said. “He’s my very first player, very first recruit, first signing at Michigan back in 2012. He hasn’t scored a ton of goals, but he has scored every big goal this program has had since I’ve been here, and he’s done it again tonight.”
The game went on, and all three forwards were on the pitch for the final whistle. The fans rushed the field, and the three celebrated as though it was their last win in front of their home soccer stadium, even though they could potentially still play at home again.
The three forwards have been part of Daley’s program since the beginning of his time at Michigan, and they have played a big role in seeing the team grow through the years.
With an exciting batch of freshmen that includes Atuahene, the future of Wolverine soccer looks bright. But this game showed just how important the graduating class is, and has been, for the team.
“They won the Big Bear then (in my first season), they won it last year, and they’ve won it here again,” Daley said. “It was a storybook ending.”