- Erin Kirkland/Daily
By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 12, 2013
The Michigan women’s soccer team recently completed one of the best seasons in program history. After finishing second in the Big Ten, the Wolverines earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and reached the Elite Eight.
The Daily looked back on why Michigan (9-1-1 Big Ten, 18-4-1 overall) was so successful and what the team can expect next year.
1. The seniors were critical and will be hard to replace.
The Wolverines tied a program record for wins and finished No. 6 in the final NSCAA rankings, accolades that may not have been possible if not for the performances of the senior class.
Last season, Michigan coach Greg Ryan said goodbye to three distinguished seniors — goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer, forward Clare Stachel and midfielder Emily Jaffe — who helped bring the program back to national relevance. But the seven this year may have been even more special.
“I believe this will be the most impactful senior class that Michigan may have ever had and may ever have,” Ryan said.
Nkem Ezurike, who was a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s highest honor, shattered records this season. She became the Wolverines’ career scoring leader (49) and points leader (118).
Forward Shelby Chambers-Garcia joined Ezurike in the attack, and she scored a crucial goal in a win over rival Ohio State on Nov. 2 .
Tori McCombs and Meghan Toohey controlled the midfield, while defenders Shelina Zadorsky, Holly Hein and Kayla Mannino kept the back line sound all season.
“We always fought for each other and never gave up,” McCombs said.
And they were rewarded for their efforts, as Michigan enjoyed its best two-year span ever with 34 wins and deep NCAA Tournament runs.
2. But the Wolverines have a solid foundation returning.
A defining aspect of Michigan this season was its versatility on offense. The younger players figured out what role they needed to fill on the field, which helped take pressure off the seniors.
Fourteen different players — many of whom will return in 2014 — scored this year.
“The younger kids are the future of Michigan soccer,” McCombs said. “Them getting a lot of playing time made them become leaders, and they know what roles they have to fill next year.”
3. Madi Lewis really is faster than a rocket ship.
When Ryan said that freshman Madisson Lewis is “faster than a rocket ship,” it was an obvious exaggeration, yet an appropriate metaphor. The forward’s most lauded quality is her speed on the counter.
Lewis’ athleticism created several quality chances this season. She became adept at turning away from pressure and sneaking in behind opponents’ back lines for quality scoring chances.
In her first year as a Wolverine, the freshman scored six goals and added nine assists. Lewis could replace Ezurike at the lone forward spot, and her performance this season suggests that she’ll fill in quite nicely.
“Lewis plays like a senior,” McCombs said. “With some weightlifting and spring training, she’s going to evolve into an amazing player — more than she already is.”
4. Bucklin will keep the defense strong.
It’s easy to overlook freshman goalkeeper Taylor Bucklin when talking about the improvement of younger players, because she “stepped up from day one,” according to Ryan.
But her consistency paid off. Bucklin set a program record with 12 shutouts and finished the season ranked fifth in the nation for goals-against average.
“That’s unheard of with what kind of schedule we play,” Ryan said.
Added McCombs: “Taylor was very mature and very serious, because she knew she had big shoes to fill. I think that she did a great job filling them.”
Bucklin succeeded former netminder Haley Kopmeyer, who finished her Michigan career with more saves than any other player in program history. But Ryan said that the Greenwich, Conn. freshman could quickly become even better than her predecessor between the pipes.
“Kopmeyer would be the first to admit that when she came to Michigan, she was not prepared,” Ryan said. “Bucklin, on the other hand, comes into this season as a very polished goalkeeper — one with great understanding, maturity and technical skills.”
Bucklin’s job was made easier with a stellar defense in front of her, but that shouldn’t undermine her performances. McCombs mentioned that Bucklin was extremely vocal in the net — a quality that most goaltenders don’t pick up until they’re upperclassmen.
5. If Ryan had one word to describe this year’s team, it’d be…
This year’s berth in the NCAA Tournament was Ryan’s third in his six years as the Wolverines’ head coach. It was also Michigan’s second time ever in the Elite Eight.
The Wolverines had some bumps in the road. The biggest came in late September, when they struggled to score and went a disappointing 1-1-1 against Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“You start to ask yourself some questions,” Ryan said. “I could see we were going in the right direction, but we just needed to be more determined in our efforts to go to goal.”
But the former coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team made a few adjustments, and Michigan went on to win every regular-season game following the loss against the Gophers.
They earned their first win in East Lansing since 1998, sang “The Victors” for the first time ever in Happy Valley — stunning a team that ousted them from the 2012 NCAA Tournament — and blanked the Buckeyes to end the regular season.
And despite an early exit from the Big Ten tournament, Michigan’s Elite Eight spot will leave a lasting impression on the program.
Now, Ryan must say goodbye to seven seniors who made that run possible. They’ll help train the underclassmen in the winter semester, and Ryan will prepare players like Toohey for the transition to professional soccer. But when May comes, they’ll be out of his hands.
“I’m going to truly miss this group for the rest of my life,” he said.