By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 13, 2012
EVANSTON— On Sunday, the Ultras honored their vow.
A student organization founded in 2010, the Michigan Ultras strive to unite soccer fans across campus and create an exciting atmosphere at the Michigan men's soccer team's home matches. Their members regularly brave frigid weather to passionately support Wolverine soccer with flags, drums and every last bit of noise that they can possibly force out of their lungs. In the three years since they launched, the Ultras have become well-known across the Big Ten for producing an intimidating atmosphere at the U-M Soccer Complex.
Though the Ultras often succeed at frustrating the opposition, their principle aim is to serenade the Michigan players and coaches with chants of adulation and praise. In one of their traditional cheers, the Ultras promise the Wolverines that, “where you go, we’ll follow.” And when Michigan advanced to the Big Ten Tournament Championship in Evanston against Michigan State on Sunday afternoon, the Ultras lived up to that pledge.
Before the break of dawn on an uncharacteristically warm morning, 20 bleary-eyed Ultras dressed in maize and blue boarded a coach bus sponsored by the University. Passing around a box of donuts and carrying cowbells and banners, they quietly prepared for the long commute to Evanston.
Despite the silence, energy coursed through the vehicle. Michigan had won five consecutive games en route to the conference championship, including a 1-0 win over the Spartans just a week earlier. A championship trophy and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament were there for the taking.
The bus rumbled down South State Street and passed the vacant U-M Soccer Complex before turning onto I-94. With the rising sun behind them, the Ultras headed west.
Four hours later at Lakeside Field, sophomore goalkeeper Adam Grinwis stepped off the team bus and was greeted by quite the surprise: a throng of Ultras pounding a drum and chanting his name. When Michigan head coach Chaka Daley hobbled towards the field on his crutches, he stopped to thank the Ultras. It would be a tough game, Daley said. But with the Ultras’ support, the Wolverines could pull out a victory.
The starting lineups were announced, national anthem was played and the opening whistle blew. Packed tightly into the bleachers, the Ultras started cheering.
They first sang “The Victors.” Then the Ultras begged the Wolverines to put a goal in the net and tried to help the process by trying to distract Spartan goalkeeper Zach Bennett. Later, they reminded Michigan State players that Lake Michigan was across the street if they wanted to keep dramatizing dives.
The Ultras didn’t stop chanting until the contest ended.
Parents and other fans at the game noticed, giving the Ultras high-fives and thumbs up. The Big Ten Network noticed, panning to the maize-clad students repeatedly during the match. But most importantly, the Michigan soccer team noticed.
“Ultras are the best,” Daley said. “I love that they came all the way from Ann Arbor to be here to support us for the Big Ten Tournament. You hear them always — loud and clear — and our guys play for them and the coaches get energized by them. We’re delighted when they come to the games.”
Down by a tally with less than three minutes left, junior forward T.J. Roehn sent the Ultras into delirium with an equalizing goal. But ultimately, the Spartans prevailed. Taking advantage of a 30 mile-per-hour tailwind, midfielder Sean Conerty fired a laser from 20 yards out that snuck under the crossbar and earned Michigan State the Big Ten Championship.
As the Spartans mobbed each other in celebration, several Wolverines dropped to the ground in agony. Grinwis — who had come tantalizingly close to saving the game-winning shot — lay face-down on the turf. Daley stood motionless near his team’s bench.
And for the first time all afternoon, the Ultras were silent.
As Michigan State’s fight song blared and Spartans hoisted the first-place trophy, the Michigan players eventually picked themselves off the ground. Together, they walked across the field towards the bleachers. As they approached, the Ultras’ chants of support began again.
“(Traveling to Evanston) shows our dedication,” said Ultras president Nate Hoff. “Everyone had a good time and we were cheering the entire game. We brought a lot of nice atmosphere.”
Despite failing to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines’ strength of schedule and recent success earned them an at-large selection — they will host Niagara on Thursday night. When Michigan takes the field, flags will wave, drums will pound and cowbells will clang. The Ultras will be there, and they will be heard.