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Usually when the Michigan women’s soccer team takes the field to kick off a new season, they’re facing a non-conference opponent. Usually they haven’t had six months to bond and practice, usually there isn’t snow on the ground.

But even in the face of new frontiers, the Wolverines want to “raise it” this season, a motto that guides the team to elevate its performance after losing in the third round of the NCAA Championship last season to eventual runner-up North Carolina.

“This year is about going that one little bit farther than we did last year, that one extra run at the end of the game when you’re not really wanting to do it,” junior Meredith Haakenson said. “When people look at us, let’s raise the level that they see.”

With many of its top performers returning — including senior Sarah Stratigakis, the 2019 Big Ten midfielder of the year — Michigan will likely rely on its experience to make it back to the NCAA tournament.

Not knowing if they would even have a season when training began in the fall, the Wolverines used that time to build technical and tactical skills to match its experience. While the two-week athletics pause that ended Feb. 7 impacted the way the team prepared, coach Jennifer Klein and her players feel their work has helped them stay in game shape.

“A lot of credit has to go to our young women and them keeping themselves in a good place this entire time and just being hungry and ready for when we get an opportunity to compete against an opponent other than ourselves,” Klein said.

That chance will come this Saturday as the Wolverines travel to Columbus to take on rival Ohio State, their first game since Nov. 24, 2019. Starting an 11-game Big Ten season, Michigan could build off of last season’s conference success that saw it lose only two Big Ten games.

Those losses came at the hands of Rutgers and Wisconsin, both of whom shut out the Wolverines. Returning offensive talents like Stratigakis and Haakenson could help prevent that from repeating with another year of experience under their belts.

Offensive production stems from more than just those two, however. Haakenson said scoring is a team effort. Players like junior Raleigh Loughman or sophomore Danielle Wolfe can generate scoring for the Wolverines as they use their positioning to create chances. Wolfe scored seven goals last season while Loughman added six herself.

Scoring goals will help the Wolverines this season, but Michigan wants to improve its skills on both sides of the ball. Assistant coach Katie Hultin will continue working with the Wolverines on their defensive skills, something Klein and the players are thankful for.

Another asset for the Wolverines comes between the pipes as last season’s starting goaltender Hillary Beall will return for her senior season. Beall started all 24 games for Michigan last season, posting a 17-6-1 record and allowing around a goal per game. 

Solid defensive play factored into the team’s training this fall, but Beall could be an X-factor when opponents inevitably get good chances. In a close, defensive conference like the Big Ten, having that last line of defense can make or break teams.

With all the Wolverines were able to improve on, they cannot impact the way their opponents play. They will need to remain sharp against teams like Rutgers, Wisconsin and Penn State if they want to raise the bar this year.

The addition of seven freshmen this fall could prove useful against difficult foes. With around six months to acclimate to the college level, those players could make their presence felt more than a normal fall season would allow. 

“I give all the credit to them,” Haakenson said. “They’ve done a great job of just coming in, knowing the expectations, where they’re at, where we expect them to be and really getting to know them on and off the field.”

That depth could be essential if the Wolverines want to reach their goals of winning the conference tournament and returning to the NCAA tournament.

With only 11 games to prove to the NCAA tournament selectors that their squad belongs, the Wolverines need to be sharp from the first kickoff. Without non-conference games to compare itself to the country’s best, Michigan can’t afford a bad start.

Road games against teams like Ohio State and Penn State could be crucial for the team to differentiate itself from its conference foes. With a 5-1 record in Big Ten road games last year, the Wolverines will focus on increasing that recent success.

“It’s a business trip,” Klein said. “We’ve got to go in and try to keep some of the same rhythms and habits that we do at a home game.”

That mentality will have to be extended to home games as well. The Wolverines will play some home games at Brighton’s Legacy Center because they lack an indoor facility.

Michigan knows how much work went into the season amid a pandemic. Now, as Team 27 prepares to take the field in Columbus, the Wolverines want to use those efforts as motivation to raise their performance.